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
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?
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
- 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
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
- 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
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
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.
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 like animals'.
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 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):
- When preparing for an event, organisers
should bear in mind previous event experience.
- Special planning should be carried out
for difficult events.
- 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,
- 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
- 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.
- 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.