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Holi-Duped: Retail Rebellion

“Eight days of Hanukkah, come let’s celebrate!” the voices sing. “Mind control…in sales and marketing, is simply the process of using natural human predispositions to break down defense barriers that are obstacles in the sales process,” Big Business declares.

“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright,” the carolers croon. “Crack the psychological code that activates a person’s buying sequence and your prospect…becomes happily involved in a buying decision that you have rendered painless and even enjoyable,” chortles the Big-Box Store.  

“Come Celebrate Kwanzaa! African Americans, Come together; Be as One. Everyday in Every way, Light the candles of our faith…” the children dance and shout. “There is a calculated, psychological scheme put into motion by toy manufacturers – and they know it works every time because they understand how the human mind works,” retailers affirm, as they prepare for the blitz.

Welcome to the Holidays. Does it turn your stomach? It’s not personal. Just business. According to National Business newsletter, customers “buy with their emotions, then justify their purchase with logic later” so it should come as no surprise that during the Holiday season, when emotions and stress are churned to a froth, retailers should smell profit.

Fear not, Holiday revelers! Retail masterminds may have crafted their stores to delve into your cortexes and tug on your heartstrings but I have ferreted out their secrets and offer them to you.

But the Beast has Such a Cute Belly!

It’s a trap!
-Admiral Akbar, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

One of the first things you must do, as a wise holiday shopper, is be aware of your environment. It is the first wave of manipulation. Stop. Right at the door. Use your eyes, your nose and your ears to be aware of the tactics used to lull you into senseless cart filling.

In grocery stores, retailers use psychological tricks to make you “buy what the retailers want [you] to buy: the aroma of freshly-baked bread is often wafted through a supermarket in order to stimulate demand for products from the in-store bakery, or just to make shoppers feel hungry,” a British article revealed. For us in the states, think of the popcorn at the concession stand of Target or K-Mart. Why can we still smell it in the sporting goods section? Because when we’re hungry, our decision making wonks out. My stomach may say I want popcorn, but my will denies it. Then my brain says “but this new camping lantern will fill the bill!” and I haven’t been camping in years.

Even more insidious traitors than your nose, are your ears. Take the same concept and apply it to the Holiday music that wafts from every speaker in a store. It has a role, and that role is to further disarm you; to dispute the common sense which stops you from buying more than you can afford. “But it’s Christmas,” the disembodied voice of Nat King Cole whispers.

Your eyes are the first of the senses to give up. The entire Holiday shopping bonanza is a feast for your over-stimulated, glazed, glassy eyes. “Beautiful colors are arranged so artfully that it is hard to ignore, even if you walk on by,”  said an expose on Store Psychology. “Subconsciously, your mind has registered it and finds it very appealing, wanting more. It’s no accident…it puts the shopper in a trusting and buying frame of mind.”

Your initial assessment of your shopping adversary should take all these factors into account, and once aware of Wal-Mart’s wiles, you will be better armed. However, remember that the journey is long, and the whole store is laid out to erode that watchfulness. Look around. Nearly every grocery, big box or appliance store will have their electronics, house wares, dairy or meat section in the back. “This is a strategic move to lead you through aisles even if you are only there for a pound of ground beef or a gallon of milk.” Listen to the Brits, because temptation will hit you at every turn. Store designers agree that “brand manufacturers pay top dollar to be in an end cap,” because that’s where the impulse-buys are most powerful. “Notice how your eye takes in the signage on these displays – like “10 for $10!” How often have you picked up ten without thinking further? You can take one for $1 if you want to or none at all.”

Emotional Molestation

The Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded.”
-Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Hope

Black Friday! Cyber Monday! Small-Business Saturday! (not kidding). Last shopping weekend before Christmas Doorbusters! Christmas Eve Blowouts!  Act now! Come in before 3am and receive a free psychiatric evaluation!

Holiday sales use fear and mass hysteria with more finesse than the US government, but that’s because they have more practice. Holiday sale panic phenomena is based on “some well-known features of human psychology.” The first is as true in England as it is here across the pond, “We are more at ease when shopping…when others are around us.” Those people crammed in line next to you like cattle? That lady gripping an American Doll with a rabid gleam in her red-cracked eyes? They are there to comfort you and show you that what you’re doing is normal. The other principle is fear of loss.  National Business reminds all their readers that customers “respond more to what they are going to lose than to what they are going to gain,” so any promotion or sale should be for a limited time and warn prospects that they will miss out if they don’t act fast.

For Only $19.95!

He says it’s the best he can do. Since the XP-38 came out, they’re just not in demand.
-Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: A New Hope

We’ve come face-to-face with our adversary for the first time in our anti-Holiday sale manifesto. It’s not the item; it’s the price. Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist George Loewenstein has completed research which documents that “that high pricing caused higher activation levels in a brain area associated with pain,” yet retailers need that price to be as high as possible. The pain-center of your brain is called the insula and many retail contortions amount to the skulking thief’s attempts to get your bankroll without tripping this in-built alarm system.

First the price is hidden in percentages. Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, whom top-ranked ecommerce blog getelastic.com considers “Yoda-smart,” conducted numerous experiments which concluded scientifically that “when shown an X-Y range of numbers in an ad, most people will revert to the first number as the mean (average) standard. So with a headline of 25-50% off, it will be assumed most items are 25% off, and very few are 50%.” Which is, at least, how I think. Marketers avoid this mental trip-wire with the phrase “Up to 50% off!” instead.

Then the price is hidden by the sale. “Stores also take advantage of the neuroscience of shopping when they post giant sale prices on or near attractively-priced items,” according to an extrapolation of Dr. Loewenstien’s work. “These sale prices won’t activate the consumer’s insula, but rather the medial prefrontal cortex – the area responsible for balancing gains and losses…this more rational part of the brain will confirm that the price is a good deal.”

Sometimes, according to William Poundstone, author of Priceless, the price hides behind its fat neighbor. To Poundstone, “prices are fascinating because they sit squarely at the intersection of our desires and the objects of desire.” One of the key ways that retailers subvert our insula to feed us our desires is through a tactic that behavioral economists call “anchoring.” Retailers will over-price select items with full knowledge that “it may never sell but it makes everything else look affordable by comparison.” Hence, it “anchors” the prices around itself. Poundstone theorizes that the human brain has evolved “for quick decision-making” as a crisis survival skill. That “the brain constructs desires and beliefs on the fly which can lead to inconsistent prices and choices that are ripe for exploitation,” with artificial data like anchoring.

Finally, the price is always hidden by the price itself. I remember those blue-screen deals on UHF television shouting “Only $19.95!” Little did I know then that this was a psychological tactic. It is one of Konstantin Goudkov’s favorites. Goudkov “studies the psychology of pricing, ways to manipulate prices for maximum profit, and tactics to control consumer price perception,” according to his website. Prices which end in .99 or .95 have become the industry standard because “people tend to see the first figure in dollars as compared to the cents. $9.99 is cheaper than $10, and the cents don’t figure in the perception. While shopping, consumers tend to overlook small differences in cents but go by the dollar value.” Perhaps we are simply wired to be Holi-duped, because studies have found that “the highest single odd digit is the most psychologically favored and 9 is that most fortunate figure of acceptance.”

I Will Punch Every Wal-Mart in The Face

No more training do you require…One thing remains.
You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be.

-Master Yoda, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Our enemy uses fear, mass hysteria, trickery, psychology and our own emotions against us. How do we confront that? With the understanding that they are, in fact, not our enemies. We are. The retailer’s role is to provide us with what we desire and make money. If we fall into manipulative traps and buy more than we desire, or spend more than we should, that’s our fault. I offer three suggestions to arm yourself in this rebellion against retail manipulation.

Be One With The Force: Be aware of everything. Your sensory input, to fight against environmental manipulation. Your hunger level to combat internal pressure. You will be less likely to fall into the anchoring trap if you do research on what you want before you hit the store. In terms of prices, look to other shelves than the ones on eye level, because retailers know that we look there naturally and will load the highest price items onto those shelves.

Remember Your Schematics: Make plans before you enter the store. A list of what you want is good. Take it a step further if you find that you are helpless prey to the impulse buy or the end-cap trap. Tailor your list to the store’s layout so that you check off what you need in order of appearance. You will move from searching for items to selecting them.

We All Need a Han Solo: If all else fails, bring a wingman. Make an agreement to only get that which is on your list, or what is a good deal to you both. It is harder to manipulate two wary people.

The Holiday season is to be enjoyed, and buying gifts is enjoyable. Being well informed and well armed will hopefully continue that enjoyment past the time when the credit card bills roll in.


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