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The Psychology of Shopping (Fonte)

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 customers.

What psychological techniques are in use?

Shelves of breakfast cereals in a supermarket

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 die.

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 consultancy
  • 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 Paul's, London

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 25,000m, 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 store.

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 injuries.

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.

Fruin's study

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 m, 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 causes fainting
  • 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:

  1. Interruption of the flow of people, resulting in critical crowd pressure.
  2. 'Flight' response, where people experience either a real or perceived threat.
  3. 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 like animals'.

Further crowd psychology and management techniques

Fruin identified some characteristics of crowd psychology:


  • 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 become immobile
  • 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):

  1. When preparing for an event, organisers should bear in mind previous event experience.
  2. Special planning should be carried out for difficult events.
  3. Rules for crowd behaviour should be publicised and enforced.
  4. Training manuals prepared by the organisers should be given to all staff.
  5. Organisers should have a plan for managing the crowd and one in case of emergencies.
  6. There should be a formal chain of command for both exterior and interior security staff.
  7. Adequate communication should be ensured between exterior and interior staff.
  8. There should be sufficient medical and emergency services, personnel and equipment.
  9. 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 whilst queueing
  • More than one entrance should be used, where possible
  • 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.


  1. Why are crowds of shoppers encouraged to attend shop promotional events such as those organised by IKEA?
  2. What alternative ways can you think of to promote the opening of a new store, without compromising public safety?
  3. 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 as IKEA.
  4. 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.
  5. Make notes on how the debate progressed, ensuring that you have an adequate record of the points made by those arguing the opposite case.