Shops create panic to encourage retail rush

Christmas crush: stressful experiences can cause shoppers to lose control © Getty Images

As Christmas approaches, millions of shoppers will head to the malls and high streets. Many dread the sensory overload of gift buying – but it might make us more likely to part with our cash.

There’s an exhilarating chill in the air and tinsel and gift wrap is piling up in homes all over Britain. It’s Christmas time: the season to be jolly and, for most of us, to go shopping.

For retailers, and particularly while the economy is sluggish, now is a make-or-break time of year. Last weekend, London was packed with 16.5% more shoppers than usual, as crowds from Spain and Portugal flocked to the shops, and department store John Lewis reported a 15% sales surge. In December, retail sales are predicted to nearly double, to £39 billion.

With shopping heavily concentrated across just a few weeks, retailers work hard at persuading customers to buy as much as possible. Some techniques are obvious: gift sets and promotions make present-buying easy, and seasonal TV adverts are a reliably sentimental celebration of festive spirit and joy.

But the shops also use more surprising tactics. New evidence suggests modern retailers deliberately evoke feelings of discomfort, confusion and even panic in customers – sensations that make them more likely to part with their cash.

Store designers might play Last Christmas on a loop or pump a store full of mulled wine perfume to create an atmosphere of sensory overload. Garish displays and a huge choice of products are often deliberately designed to overwhelm.

When it comes to store layout, capitalism gets even cleverer. Many people know that supermarkets put staples like bread and milk far apart from each other, forcing shoppers to wander past shelves of tempting luxuries. It is just as common to place profitable products in eye-catching positions; some shops are arranged so customers have to stop constantly – to let others pass, for example – making their eyes more likely to fall on an impulse buy.

These unsettling techniques leave the shopper in a vulnerable place – craving what psychologists call ‘cognitive closure’. And in the middle of a mall, the one way to meet that desire for satisfaction is to splash out on an iPad, necklace or new dress.

Deck the halls

Many people think this is inexcusable: manipulation, they say, tricks people into buying things they don’t want. Everyone should be able to make free and informed choices about what they do, and what they buy: by deliberately disorientating us, retailers rob us of that freedom in the name of profit.

Others, however, think that is to underestimate shoppers. Most people, they say, are familiar with consumer society, and well aware of the tricks shops use to lure them in. Suggesting that Christmas crowds are brainwashed fools, mindlessly doing the bidding of corporate puppeteers, is insulting, misanthropic and simply untrue. Whatever happened to Christmas spirit?

You Decide

  1. Are retailers wrong to ‘confuse’ shoppers into spending more money?
  2. Will human beings always want more than they need?


  1. Field research: on your next shopping trip, create a list of things that might have been designed to influence customer’s spending habits. Write up your findings with explanations on how effective you think the methods were.
  2. Design a savvy shopping guide, with tips on how to avoid rip-offs and pick up bargains over the Christmas season.

Some People Say...

“The high street is dead.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who cares? I do all my shopping online now, anyway.
You may well prefer your computer to the mall, but not everyone feels the same. In fact, internet shopping currently makes up just 3% of total sales in the USA: the crowds in any department store or town centre today will testify that shopping as a pastime is alive and well.
Has online shopping affected this at all?
Yes. People still buy most of their goods offline, but they use the internet to shop around for the best deals. That means customers are much more well-informed than they were in the past.
And that means...
Savvier shoppers are less likely to get taken for a ride. But it won’t stop retailers trying. In fact, it might force stores to turn to more creative methods in getting people to buy.

Word Watch

Spain and Portugal
London welcomed an unusual number of tourists from Spain, Italy and Portugal this weekend. The spike was down to those countries celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Christian celebration, with a public holiday that many used as an excuse for a weekend away.
Seasonal TV adverts
John Lewis, the British department store, has becomes famous for its sentimental Christmas ads, featuring folk covers of popular songs and telling touching stories about giving gifts. Last year’s, for example, depicted a child impatiently waiting for Christmas – then revealed he was looking forward not to his own presents, but to giving his parents a gift.
New evidence
Researchers from Penn State University and the University of Singapore discovered a range of factors that led to ‘overstimulation’ in shoppers – and a momentary lack of self-control that often resulted in unplanned purchases.
Profitable products
Goods that have a high profit margin can often be identified by where they are in a shop. In department stores, for example, the most expensive areas to rent are the spaces closest to the front entrance: these are generally reserved for pricey perfumes, jewellery and beauty goods. In supermarkets, the basic products will often be placed at the bottom of a shelf, while the luxury lines will occupy the middle, most easily noticeable slots.


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