The 1970s giants of retailing made it their business
to 'pile it high, sell it cheap'. Organisations such as Tesco
and Walmart made their names by following this policy. The thinking
was that consumers would buy as long as they believed they were
getting cheap prices and that the goods were of reasonable quality.
In the past thirty years, retailers have become
increasingly sophisticated in their methods of parting consumers
from their money. In grocery markets, shops have used a range
of techniques to create the right conditions psychologically for
consumers to buy what the retailers want them 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.
But what other methods are there? Where is the
limit to the use of psychological techniques in retailing? How
can store design be used to maximise revenues? This 'At your Leisure'
takes a look at the retail experience presented to UK shoppers
and how the use of space can be applied to the design of the urban
environment. It also analyses how one retail giant, IKEA, has
harnessed some of these psychological techniques in its store
design. Finally we ask whether some of IKEA's marketing techniques
may call into question their ability to ensure the safety of their
What psychological techniques are in use?
Shopping is a major leisure activity. Try asking
many people what they like to do in their spare time and you can
guarantee that a large number of them will nominate a trip to
their local mall. Why is this? What do we get out of the shopping
experience? Is it all about the therapeutic benefit of buying
a product or service that we desperately want? Or are other forces
at work when we enter the shopping centre? Let's look at some
standard techniques which have long been seen as successful in
retail markets. Examples of these include the following:
- Pricing at psychologically sensitive points,
for example at £29.99
- Locating so-called 'anchor' stores in malls/shopping
arcades, attracting people into the mall and increasing sales
throughout the centre by boosting footfall
to other stores
Additionally, the benefits of using so-called
'shelf psychology' are applied widely by high street retailers:
- Products identified by the retailer as impulse
buys are placed at the ends of aisles
- Own-brand products are positioned alongside
premium brands, often leading to consumers buying a cheaper
choice own-brand item rather than a premium priced one
- Stacking the products with the highest margins
(products with the greatest difference between cost to retailer
and revenue gained from selling it to a consumer) at eye-level,
as it is known that consumers are more likely to buy products
in their line of sight
Retail business organisations also try to gain
benefit by designing the shopping experience in order to maximise
revenue. They often base this policy on some well-known features
of human psychology, namely that:
- We are more at ease when shopping in or walking
through urban areas when others are around us
- The routes we use follow clear lines of sight
These features mean that urban areas where it's
hard to see from one point to another are avoided by shoppers.
As a psychological response to these conditions, we simply don't
want to be there. Left as they are, these areas will wither and
What does this mean for UK urban areas?
- Use of innovative techniques of urban design
to create better, more attractive and safer places
- A company at the forefront of this work is
Space Syntax Limited whose techniques were developed at University
College London and commercially 'spun out' as an urban environment
- The company's methods can be used to breath
new life into areas and can be applied to towns and cities and
their retail or historical centres
- Projects that Space Syntax have been involved
in include the Millennium Bridge between Tate Modern and St
What of the out-of-town shops, the carpet warehouses,
furniture showrooms and electrical superstores?
- They tend to adopt similar techniques, but
in these locations which are often on main trunk roads and motorways,
the car is king
- This is especially true where consumers have
no choice but to transport their purchases home themselves
- Some of these businesses have successfully
combined the techniques of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG)
markets with selling larger, traditionally higher value products.
One of the best examples of this is IKEA.
Sofa so good? IKEA and the psychology of shopping
- In its most recent financial year, 2003-04,
the Swedish furniture and home goods chain sold more than £1
billion worth of goods
- This was a rise of 15% over the previous year.
It was achieved in difficult trading conditions at the same
time as one of its main competitiors, Courts, went into insolvency
- IKEA increased its sales despite introducing
a 70p charge on all credit card payments in 2004
A sign of how attractive it is to have an IKEA
store located in your city was provided in the Irish Republic
at the start of 2005. The Irish Government announced a relaxation
of the restrictions on the size of retail outlets shortly after
IKEA threatened to locate in Northern Ireland instead. An IKEA
store planned for the north of Dublin would, at over 25,000m²,
have exceeded the previous limit on retail developments in the
Republic by more than four times. IKEA expect the store to create
approximately 500 jobs in the area.
So what characterises the IKEA shopping experience?
A visitor to an IKEA store is taken where the retailer wants them
to go, through different sections, each representing a different
aspect of home furnishing. All sounds very traditional, but there
is a key difference. At IKEA, the shopper's journey through the
store is guided as if she/he were a visitor to a stately home
or a wildlife park.
There doesn't seem to be any option for the shopper
as they pass from one zone to the next. Of course, alternative
routes through the store do exist, it's just that they're not
well-signed. This is clearly a deliberate policy on the part of
the company. They want you to follow a pre-planned path, observing
the products on display from the 'correct' direction. In this
way, the retailer hopes you will be tempted to collect impulse
items that you had no intention of buying when you entered the
Research shows that a person's normal 'field of
vision' is around 170 degrees. IKEA makes sure that paths through
their stores are clearly visible, but that alternative routes
through the store are well-hidden from the public. It's very hard
to take shortcuts through the store, which the company believes
will help them sell you more, as you're much likelier to pick
up a lamp or plant pot on impulse if you follow their route.
What about the safety aspect?
It seems that this strategy, which has its roots
in the psychology of shopping, is the cornerstone of IKEA's success.
But some observers have identified it as perhaps the source of
its downfall in future. They base this on the evidence of IKEA
store openings in Saudi Arabia in September 2004 and Edmonton,
north London in February 2005. Both new store openings were marred
by crushing amongst the crowds queueing, or failing to queue to
enter. The Saudi case resulted in at least three deaths and whilst
there were no fatalities in the UK, a number of people suffered
Widespread alarm caused by these two events is
aggravated by memories of occasions when the same cocktail of
ingredients was involved. This lethal list includes:
- Large numbers of people waiting to gain entry
to an event
- Narrow entry points into the event
- Pushing and crushing
- Poor crowd management
These ingredients were a feature of tragedies
such as the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, where ninety-six Liverpool
FC fans were crushed to death following crowd management failures.
At the store opening in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,
IKEA had offered free vouchers worth £150 to a limited number
of customers and drew a crowd of 20,000 people. At Edmonton, between
4,000 and 6,000 shoppers were attracted by one-off discounts,
even though the store opened at midnight. In both cases, the firm
attracted too many people to their opening event and were unable
to manage the crowds effectively.
When too many people try to enter a building or
other confined space, there are bound to be problems. But some
observers fear that IKEA's choice of store design makes matters
worse. Their stores are designed to promote profitable browsing
by interested consumers, but what happens when these shoppers
aren't just browsing?
As soon as they have an incentive to compete for
a limited number of 'bargains', people may not act with a rational
regard for their own safety and that of others. When that happens
it can quickly become a matter of urgency to locate the exits
and shortcuts that the shop has so skillfully 'disguised'.
Of course, this is not to say that such an event
is inevitable. IKEA themselves would point to the relative low
cost of many of their items - products that quickly become 'must-haves'
among consumers. The shop doesn't need perhaps to discount heavily
in order to generate custom. They get enough of that at the moment,
as is borne out by the sales growth data for 2004. And the retailer
would also stress that they comply fully with all manner of health
and safety law.
The need for crowd management
But when IKEA launches new stores, the use of
discounts and unusual opening times may lead to crowd management
issues that the company had not anticipated. How crowds behave
is a fascinating area of research and a degree of understanding
of this area can help inform organisations such as IKEA, when
they are planning a store opening or other event.
In a paper on the causes and prevention of crowd
disasters, published on the CrowdSafe Web site, John Fruin outlined
some aspects of crowd behaviour. A summary of his findings follows:
- It's hard to understand the psychological
and physiological pressures exerted by a crowd
- When crowd density equals the plan area of
the human body, individual control is lost
- As crowds reach density levels of seven people
per m², the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass
- Shock waves moving through crowds of this
density can lift people off their feet and move them over
distances in excess of three metres
- People can be lifted out of their shoes and
clothes by the forces that crowds exert
- The heat and thermal insulation of a crowd
- It's virtually impossible to get to people
who fall in high density crowds
Discussing what motivates crowds, Fruin identified
three possible causes for crowd management problems:
- Interruption of the flow of people, resulting
in critical crowd pressure.
- 'Flight' response, where people experience
either a real or perceived threat.
- A craze, where there is a competitive rush
to gain a highly valued goal.
The IKEA incidents appear to reflect craze-like
group behaviour. It is created by the event being heavily promoted.
High levels of pent-up demand are exacerbated by the fact that
the Edmonton store is located in one of London's most deprived
boroughs. Some observers have noted that IKEA ought to have anticipated
that there would be considerable demand for entry to the store
opening in Edmonton. This is especially true, they say, given
the experience of previous new IKEA store openings.
Given their surprise at the numbers of people
who turned up expecting to be able to get bargains at the new
store, IKEA were unprepared to cope with the resultant crowd behaviour.
A company spokesperson was quoted as saying that the crowd 'behaved
Further crowd psychology and management techniques
Fruin identified some characteristics of crowd
- A crowd is like a series of intermeshing
cells, each cell contains a small number of people
- Cell members cannot communicate well with
each other or see clearly what is happening within the crowd
- A dominant cell member can influence the
cell's collective behaviour
- Chains of cell-to-cell communication can
occur, often spreading rumours and incorrect information
- Crowds show a lack of front-to-back communication,
with people in the rear often pushing forward to the cost
of those in front
- At the rear of a crowd the density level
is lower, allowing freer movement, whereas those at the front
- As people in the front of the crowd collapse
it gives a false impression of forward movement
- Security personnel usually try to control
crowds from the front, where they can have little impact
Successful crowd management techniques (taken
from a 1980 US Crowd Control and Safety report):
- When preparing for an event, organisers should
bear in mind previous event experience.
- Special planning should be carried out for
- Rules for crowd behaviour should be publicised
- Training manuals prepared by the organisers
should be given to all staff.
- Organisers should have a plan for managing
the crowd and one in case of emergencies.
- There should be a formal chain of command
for both exterior and interior security staff.
- Adequate communication should be ensured
between exterior and interior staff.
- There should be sufficient medical and emergency
services, personnel and equipment.
- Crowd management plans and techniques should
be reviewed for effectiveness.
Where people are queueing outside to gain entry
to an event, such as in the case of the Edmonton IKEA store
opening, the report made the following recommendations:
- Doors to an event should be opened earlier
than advertised if necessary
- The crowd should be kept informed about what
is going on inside the event's premises
- People should be able to get refreshments
- More than one entrance should be used, where
- Staff should be trained in crowd management
Of course, we do not know the plans and preparations
made by IKEA for their Edmonton store opening. However, we do
know that some in the crowd sustained injuries at the event. It
is also clear that the potential for injuries and deaths is present
wherever crowds reach critical density and are poorly managed.
Experience suggests that it is easy for individuals and organisations
to blame the behaviour of crowds, labelling them as 'animals'
or worse. What is more difficult is for crowd 'management' to
be the priority, rather than crowd 'control'.
Retailers use tools to make consumers react positively
to their shopping experience, generating greater sales revenues
and, they hope, profits from the goods they sell. They employ
a range of psychological techniques to help them achieve their
objectives. But in using methods that aim to persuade shoppers
to spend their money, some retailers may open themselves up to
accusations that they are jeopardising the safety of the very
consumers they rely on.
- Why are crowds of shoppers encouraged to
attend shop promotional events such as those organised by
- What alternative ways can you think of to
promote the opening of a new store, without compromising public
- In two groups, use the information above
to create a list of points in favour of or against the use
of special promotional days or nights by major retailers such
- Now use your list of arguments to take part
in a group debate on how to balance the commercial demands
of the organisation with the need for customer safety.
- Make notes on how the debate progressed,
ensuring that you have an adequate record of the points made
by those arguing the opposite case.