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How Retailers Encourage Impulse Buys – Store Layouts & Psychological Tactics


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When you hurry into the grocery store for milk and bread, do you ever find yourself forking over $50 at the checkout for unplanned purchases? Do you stop by the mall for a new pair of shoes, only to end up blowing your budget on something completely different?

If so, don’t beat yourself up. While your resolve and shopping skills certainly might be called into question, the supermarket, the mall, and even the home improvement store are situated to make you spend.

Believe it or not, stores use professionals to strategically map out their floor plan in order to entice you to buy. All five senses, your impatience, and even your grumbling stomach can betray you when you’re trying to shop. But by understanding the tactics that stores use to get you to buy, you can choose to not fall prey to them.

Store Layout

You might think of grocery shopping as merely the act of pushing around a cart and grabbing stuff off shelves – and you might even feel pretty savvy as you determine unit prices or shop with coupons. But the truth is that your brain is responding to everything from the smell of the store, to the visual appeal of displays. Many retailers – especially in shopping malls – are designed to encourage impulse buys.

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Examine a walk through a hypothetical store to see how they reel you in:

Decompression Zone
First you enter the store’s foyer. This is commonly known as the “decompression zone,” and it’s meant to get you into the frame of mind to shop. Most decompression zones have friendly greeters, ads posted on the walls, and some of the store’s best deals on display. But be warned: That pyramid of toilet paper isn’t really meant for you to grab – it’s meant to prove to you that there are great deals to be had elsewhere in the store.

In clothing stores, the decompression zone is the inviting space at the front that is laden with cute outfit ideas and even sales racks. You pass by the door and the sale catches your eye, drawing you into the store for more shopping.

The Front
Once you pass the decompression zone in a grocery store, you’re into the bakery. The bakery and the hot case smell great, so when you’re hungry you’re more likely to reach for a rotisserie chicken and a box of donuts you didn’t plan on getting. You may also often find the produce section situated at the front of the store, as you’re more likely to splurge on unhealthy, pricey convenience food if you’ve already filled your basket with an assortment of fruits and veggies.

At the mall, this area of the store is usually stocked with promotional items. You feel like you’re being offered a stellar deal, which makes you want to enter the store and keep looking. As you gather up new purchases, your spending increases – just like the store had originally planned.

The Center
You may notice that convenience foods found in cans, boxes, and cartons make up the bulk of the items stocked in the center of the grocery store. You need to pass by them in order to locate staples, like milk and eggs. Furthermore, healthy foods such as dried fruits and nuts are often interspersed with pricier junk foods. Want some meat from the butcher for dinner? You’ll probably need to walk by sandwich meats and corn dogs to find it.

Clothing and shoe stores reserve the center of their shops for full-priced items. Since you must walk the full length of the store to reach the clearance section in the back, full-priced items are sandwiched between great sales so you see items and grab them as you go. In some cases you may even be deceived, since you sometimes think you’re getting sale prices throughout the store. It’s not until you check out that you realize you’ve overspent.

There’s a reason that checkout stands are at the front of the store – and it’s not because it’s convenient. It’s so you have to do a double-pass of all the aisles before you return to the front to pay, increasing the likelihood that you’ll spend above and beyond what you planned for. Suddenly, your quick trip for milk has turned into a battle to manipulate your cravings, and you end up packing your cart with expensive, unhealthy foods and other items.

If you’re checking out at the clothing, shoe, or accessory store, you can expect to see lower-priced items and accessories in small bins around the cash register. Since these items are often only priced for $1 or $2, it’s tempting to throw a couple on the counter in addition to your original haul.

Lower Priced Items Accessories

Battle of the Sexes

Being male or female can really affect the way you shop, and stores anticipate the shopping behavior of either sex. However, it is important to realize that most stores cater to the female shopper. Female shoppers typically buy at a more leisurely pace, and they spend more time weighing their options. Because of this, they spend more time in-store.

Male shoppers, however, are much less patient, and typically spend less time in the store than the average female shopper. In fact, if a man can’t find what he’s looking for in a store, he is likely to leave and forget about it, whereas a woman would probably ask for assistance – and may even be talked into an additional purchase by a savvy salesperson.

When it comes to trying on clothes, men are the better bet for stores to complete the sale. In fact, if a man takes the time to bring an item into a fitting room, there’s a 65% chance that he buys the item. This is why the fitting rooms are nearer to the men’s department than the women’s. Clothing retailers know they have to make it easy for men to try on a shirt – it’s likely he’ll buy it if he tries it on; however, if he can’t find a fitting room, he’s likely to give up and leave.

Women are much more fickle than men, purchasing only 25% of the merchandise they test out. However, they will search for fitting rooms with armloads of clothes, regardless of how far away they are.

Stores that sell big-ticket items, like electronics, are more likely to zone in on the male shopper. That’s because women are generally more savvy when it comes to spending: 86% of women scrutinize price tags, while only 72% of men check prices. For some men, the ability to spend money is a point of pride, which means that their impatience to finish shopping paired with their lack of concern for price makes them a major target for most expensive stores.

When it comes to brand power, women are clearly influenced, which is why commercials and ads are often geared toward moms and housewives. Manufacturers know that a mom might become loyal to a brand of diapers, a type of household cleaner, or a type of jeans and stick with that brand forever. Men are far less likely to stick with a brand, so it’s often the most convenient or the cheapest option that flies off the shelves – at least in the automotive department.

The Checkout Line

It’s no secret that the checkout lines in most retailers are packed with impulse buys – any parent dealing with a whiny child knows that. But different stores use different tactics to get you to buy. For some, it’s gossip mags that you’re encouraged to flip through before you toss them on the conveyor belt. For other stores, like Old Navy, the checkout line is packed with novelty items. Head to Home Depot and you’ll be snagging batteries at the last minute. Consumers should be aware that their fears of forgetting something are being manipulated – many checkout lines feature items you might neglect, like lip balm or Tylenol.

At some stores, the checkout line is blissfully short and sweet, while other stores practically invite you to pull up a chair and read a good book while you wait. Retailers have to be careful about the length of their lines, as they know that some shoppers are prone to giving up and leaving empty-handed if the lines are too long.

Instead of making customers wait, some stores – such as the Disney Store – have implemented “line busters”: machines that scan purchases before customers get to the cash register. Do they do this out of the kindness of their hearts? Unfortunately, no. It’s because you’re more likely to experience buyer’s remorse while waiting in line than at any other time during the shopping process. However, if the line is short and you can check out quickly, you are likely to keep the items you’ve brought to the register.

Checkout Counter Line

Final Word

Retailers bring in consultants and even psychologists to sway customers into making poor spending decisions as soon as they walk through the doors. But as long as you’re wise to their tactics, you’re less likely to fall into their traps. Shopping quickly with a list of needed items (and on a full stomach) can help you make better decisions at the supermarket, while checking price tags and taking your time to weigh your options helps at the clothing and electronics stores. Understand the methods the retailers use, and you can take charge of your shopping experience.

Have you ever made a purchase you completely regretted? How was your decision influenced by the retailer?


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Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.