New to behavioural science? See it in action here

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New to behavioural science? See it in action here

At Signal we find behavioural science an extremely useful part of our toolkit for addressing the challenges faced by our clients – from customer acquisition and retention to the changes brought about by the brave new world of GDPR.

But if you are new to the subject and want to see basic behavioural science in action, you don’t have to go far. In fact, you can pop into your local supermarket.

From pricing and packaging to store design and layout, supermarkets use a number of behavioural science techniques to influence what we buy and how much we spend. Here are just a few straight forward examples based on marketing techniques that aim to seduce the consumer by using his or her senses to influence their feelings and behaviour.

Let’s start with some of the more obvious ones. You’ll see a host of specials flagged in bright colours so they stand out from the thousands of other normally priced goods. Marketers use colour (think red and yellow) and position to gain salience or standout. You may well be primed for these in the car park with promotional signs and banners before you even enter the shop.

Then, the automatic doors of our supermarket open slowly (deliberately by the way) and you catch a waft of the hunger-inducing baking bread. When we’re hungry, we buy more food. Welcome to scent marketing.

Stimulation of the senses doesn’t stop there – there’s sound marketing too. Soft, slow music engenders a sense of relaxation and calmness that slows us down. Supermarkets don’t want us dashing in and out merely buying the things we want. They want us to linger, so that they have time to influence us and to sell us more.

And then there’s haptic or sense marketing, whereby the feel or texture of an item can connect our brains to a particular product or brand – and make us want it more. One supermarket unwrapped its leading brands of toilet tissue so customers could feel and compare them to their own brand. Their own brand sales increased as a result.

Sensory influencers can be combined for even greater effect. For instance, in some supermarkets floor tiles will be smaller near expensive items where supermarkets want us to linger. The sound and feeling of the trolley crossing the more numerous, smaller tiles is ‘heard’ by the brain as an increase in speed, so it tells our bodies to slow down to preserve the ‘normal’ rhythm of the trolley’s progress.

At the end of the supermarket aisles, you’ll probably find open sale bins with specials or new products. Often they’ll feature attention-grabbing packaging that makes you want stop and pick up the displayed product – to touch it. Here, haptic marketing is working with the endowment principle. By touching an item you feel an increased ownership over that product – and you’ll be less likely to give it up (loss aversion). Which means you’re more likely to purchase it. What’s more, new evidence from Ohio University suggests you’ll probably be prepared to pay more for it once you’ve touched it as well.

And if you like those little cups of drink or samples of food that supermarkets like to give away, remember there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Once you’ve given into temptation and tried their mouth-watering giveaway, you may find that reciprocity (that feeling of obligation to return a favour or gift) may lead you to purchase the product!

These examples are just a taste of the behavioural science principles you’ll find in your supermarket – there are many more and often they’re more subtle. So next time you pop to the shop, keep your eyes, ears, taste buds, fingers, feet and every other sense as keen as you can to see if there are other ways you may be being influenced to spend more.

If you’d like to dive into the topic of behavioural science in a bit more detail, the following books are a good place to start:

  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (a good introduction to the basic principles)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (a more in-depth, academic look at the topic)

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