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For those of you looking to go out and actually do your holiday shopping in a store, you might want to be wary of the tricks businesses may use to encourage more spending.

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Sources:

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[ intro ].

If you walk through a mall, you might notice that every store is a bit different. They have different lighting, different music playing, even different smells to them.

And that’s not just branding. By making small adjustments to the store environment, retailers can tweak your mood, your perception of their products, and even the likelihood you’ll buy something! But this sensory manipulation is not foolproof, and there are limits to their influence on you.

Let’s start with the lights. Vision is our dominant sense, after all, and people need to be able to see things to buy them, so retailers have long understood that a store’s lighting is super important. And they’ve learned that, by tinkering with it, they can change the way customers spend.

If they want to sell something specific, for example, they can get their customers to pay more attention to it by shining a spotlight on it. And bright lights on products also make people think the items are worth more. But it’s not all about brightness.

Some studies have found that the color of the light around us can steer us towards buying different things. For instance, when researchers made the ambient light in a room blue instead of white, participants evaluating products on a smart phone suddenly became more interested in buying what they saw. It even happened when they changed the color of the phone’s display!

But, the trick only worked for what the researchers considered hedonic purchases— things you buy for fun or novelty, like fancy watches, chocolates, or lingerie. Blue light had no effect on the participants’ intent to buy practical things like detergent and shampoo. In addition to lights, stores can also fiddle with what you hear while you’re shopping.

You may not put much thought into the music playing over the loudspeaker, but the retailer probably has. That’s in part because music has a profound effect on your emotions. So, if you like the store’s tunes, your mood improves overall.

And that rubs off on your impression of the store and its employees. But stores can’t just play whatever they think most people will like, like chart-toppers. In fact, when researchers played nothing but famous hits through a mall for two weeks, shoppers reported feeling less positive.

This might be because they found music they knew well to be distracting, which made it harder for them to relax. Plus, while feeling happier generally increases spending, it doesn’t always. For example, one study found playing happy music made people less likely to want to buy greeting cards, even though their mood was improved.

Sad music was always better for sales— even for cards conveying a happy message! Which may be because the sadder songs stirred more emotion in general. In addition to the mood of the songs, stores can try to tailor the tempo of their music.

As we talked about in our episode on music and workouts, our bodies and even our neurons really feel the beat. And that can apparently change the way we move through a store. For example, a 1982 study manipulated the speed of music played in a grocery store, and found that slowing things down led to more sales.

Turned out that when slower music was playing, the foot traffic through the store slowed down— and more time in the store meant meant the shoppers added more to their carts. But retailers have lots of reasons to play fast music, too. Like, studies have found that shoppers who enjoy shopping and do it for fun tend to make more impulse purchases if the music they hear has a faster beat.

And a quick tempo can help counteract the negative effects of a store being too crowded. Which is why, if you brave the crowds on Black Friday, you’ll probably hear lots of Jingle Bell Rock and less White Christmas. Plus, in some cases, it’s more about matching the music to the product.

Like, in one study where researchers had people select between several different cuisines, participants were more likely to pick a dish from the same culture as the music that was playing. This idea of matching also applies to smells. In one 2017 study, for example, people said they liked the smell of chocolate and lavender soaps equally.

But a lavender scent, which is more traditionally associated with personal care products, increased their intent to buy the soap more than a chocolate one did. So the right scent could, in theory, boost sales. But picking a good smell for the whole store is tough.

Studies suggest it doesn’t just have to match the inventory— it also has to match the customers. Take the findings of a 2006 study, for example, where researchers first asked participants to rate the masculinity and femininity of different scents. They took the ones rated most masculine— a scent called rose maroc— and most feminine—plain ole vanilla— and diffused each through a department store for four days.

Turned out that when the scent was congruent with the shoppers' gender, they spent more time in the store, bought more items, and ultimately shelled out about double the amount. But, in addition to matching a store’s smell to its products and customers, retailers also have to consider that scents people have experienced can be strongly tied to emotions and memories, . And all of that means it’s kind of hard to implement the perfect store-wide smell.

Though... some have tried. Like, remember that unmistakable cologne that used to attack you whenever you got within fifty feet of an Ambercrombie & Fitch? That’s a good example of how trying to steer customers can backfire.

They got so much flak for that smell that nowadays, they use much less of what’s considered a gender neutral scent. Of course, a few notable flops aren’t going to stop retailers from trying to use your senses against you. Whether it’s with an ambient scent, lighting, or just the music playing in the background, stores are willing to try a lot to get you to part with your money a little more easily.

Luckily, manipulating human brains is tricky stuff. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! And a special thank you to our community of patrons on Patreon.

This channel literally wouldn’t exist without them, since they helped us pick the topic! If you want to learn more about our patron community, head over to Patreon.comSciShow. And if you liked this episode, you’ll probably love the one we did on how restaurants use psychology!

So why not watch that one next— and let us know what surprised you most in the comments. [ outro ].