If you’re like most people, you eat out on a fairly regular basis. And you certainly grocery shop.
One Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans visit dine-in restaurants at least once per week, and in 2016 alone, U.S. dining establishments brought in a hefty $782 billion in sales. That’s a lot of dough (or clams or cabbage or…hey, we’re getting hungry).
And according to statistics website Statista, the average U.S. consumer goes grocery shopping 1.5 times per week. Those shopping trips are big business: Grocery sales generated over $600 billion in 2015.
But while you’re perusing the menu and munching on free bread, you’re being subtly motivated to spend more money—and choose foods you aren’t really that interested in eating. As it turns out, restaurateurs use some surprisingly savvy marketing techniques to sell their products. To keep you spending, your local grocer employs some nifty marketing tricks, too.
We’re not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re headed out to your favorite sushi spot or local grocery store, there are a few crucial things in mind if you want to avoid unnecessary spending. We’ll start with restaurants, then we’ll dish on grocery stories.
Look closely at the menu and you might notice something missing.
If you’re at a suitably fancy restaurant, you’ll see a number under each item, but you won’t find a dollar sign. That’s because menu designers see dollar signs as “pain points,” which could potentially affect the customer’s experience (and the restaurant’s profit).
There’s some research to back that up. A 2009 study from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration found that “guests given the numeral-only menu spent significantly more than those who received a menu with prices showing a dollar sign or those whose menus had prices written out in words.”
Diners don’t like thinking about the money they’re spending, and those nasty dollar signs seem to discourage us from trying high-dollar menu items. You won’t find dollar signs on many menus; you will, however, find plenty of beautifully named foods.
That’s not just because the chef is extremely passionate about their work—conventional wisdom holds that descriptive menu items sell better than normally named food items (Cornell Food and Brand Lab’s research seems to back that up, but that lab has come under fire for some of their methods).
That makes sense; would you rather eat a cheeseburger or a “cheddar Angus burger served on a toasted brioche bun?” If you had a choice between “golden cornmeal nuggets brushed with locally sourced sea salt and a light dusting of cheese” or Cheetos, which would you pick?
Of course, descriptive terminology only works within certain limits.
“When we describe specials, we’re trained to be as descriptive as possible without actually lying or using too many strong adjectives,” Amanda, a 30-year-old former waitress at a St. Louis restaurant, tells Urbo.
“Customers don’t really like it if you use words like ‘amazing’ or ‘delicious,’ since it seems like you’re trying to lead them to a conclusion. But if you can list off all of the ingredients in a dish and make them sound appetizing, then yeah, you’re probably going to sell some extra food.”
Naturally, those flowery descriptions also appear on the menu, where they (hopefully) entice customers into spending a few extra dollars.
By the way, there’s an entire industry focused on the art and science of menu design.
Consultants—sometimes called “menu engineers,” which seems a bit pretentious—have convinced major brands like Huddle House to use a variety of tactics to improve profits without changing prices. That might mean removing dollar signs, putting dotted lines around expensive items, or adding white space to make a particular dish stand out.
That doesn’t mean that all of the engineers’ suggestions are effective. One San Francisco State University study showed that customers read menus from top to bottom, left to right—not focusing on a “sweet spot” in the upper-right quadrant of the menu, as menu designers had previously insisted.
“The restaurant industry has been piggybacking off past research,” said Sybil Yang, the researcher who directed the study. “It’s like a bad rumor that just kept perpetuating.”
That basket of free bread comes with strings attached.
Not literal strings, of course—we’re pretty sure that’d be some sort of health code violation.
Today I actually googled “Restaurants that give free bread” and that’s how I’m deciding on dinner.
— Lyz Khalifa 🌙🔮 (@lyzigras) July 7, 2018
But while restaurants likely give out bread because it’s traditional for certain types of cuisine, there are a few other reasons for those cost-free carbs. For starters, by being generous with customers, restaurants encourage customers to be generous with them (ideally by ordering more food and leaving sizable tips).
“Bread’s pretty easy to provide. It’s cheap, most people like it, and it seems like something really special, if you do it right,” Amanda says. “Nobody really fills up completely on bread, either, and it gives them something to do while they’re waiting 20 minutes for their entrees. It’s pretty much a no-brainer—if you’ve got a decent restaurant, you’re offering bread.”
There’s also some evidence that high-carb foods can stimulate hunger by peaking insulin levels, although that’s probably not as much of a factor. After all, stuffing your body with breadsticks surely won’t make you order extra hot wings.
Nearly every high-end restaurant uses the same basic lighting tactics.
“From a psychological point of view, one of the key aspects to a restaurant’s design is the lighting,” restaurant interior designer Tom Strother told The Independent in 2017. “It has to be soft and flattering to make guests feel comfortable so that they are confident and relaxed and enjoy their stay in the restaurant. We tend to do this through soft ambient lighting to complement the more targeted architectural lighting and also to suit the time of day.”
The goal of good lighting is to make guests feel comfortable. In bright lights, imperfections tend to come out—it’s the same reason you think you look absolutely horrific under fluorescent lights.
We asked Amanda whether she’d ever overheard restaurant owners talking about the lighting.
“This is another no-brainer to me,” she says. “Soft lights make everything better. It’s just important to keep them bright enough that servers can see where they’re going. If you’re constantly tripping and spilling plates of pasta on your customers, you’re not going to have a very successful restaurant.”
In other words, restaurants thrive on efficiency, so functionality always comes first. Functional lighting—candles to help the guests read menus, overhead lamps to draw attention to the salad bar, and things of that nature—help to fill in the gaps.
Some restaurants also carefully construct their playlists to get diners to spend.
Music plays a huge role in establishing the atmosphere of a restaurant. If you walk into a Chinese place that’s blaring pop radio hits, you’ll probably feel slightly out of place; if that same business is playing traditional Chinese music, you’ll likely feel more relaxed. Pay close attention, though, and you might notice that most high-end restaurants play classical music. That’s by design.
according to ivan pavlov, when a biologically potent stimulus (i.e. your mac and cheese) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (i.e. the classical music played at your restaurant) you get a conditioned response (i.e. my mouth watering)
— tala (@tawlaaa) July 11, 2018
A study from the Universities of Leicester and Surry found that music had a significant effect on the bill. When classical music was played in the background, diners spent an average of more than $31.84 (£24 GBP) per person on food and drinks. Pop music brought in around $29.18 per person, while playing no music at all brought in a mere $28.79. Unfortunately, researchers didn’t test the effect of Pantera’s seminal 1992 album Vulgar Display of Power on sales.
Those might not seem like dramatic differences, but multiplied by hundreds of diners per week, it quickly adds up. Obviously, if you’re running a classy restaurant, classical music makes sense (and cents).
And about that “no fish on Mondays” thing…
A famous old piece of culinary advice: Don’t order fish on Mondays. The logic is simple: Restaurants don’t typically source seafood over the weekend, so if you order fish on a Monday, you’ll end up with a slimy halibut or an overripe trout.
The good news is that it’s no longer true. This comes from the late Anthony Bourdain, who created the rule in his 1999 memoir Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain later retracted it, noting that it’s obsolete thanks to changes in the global food supply chain.
“All of our fish arrived frozen, anyway, and it tasted fine,” Amanda says. “Maybe that’s good advice if you live near the ocean or something.”
Depending on the restaurant, that “daily special” might not be worth your time.
As chef Gordon Ramsay reportedly told The Daily Mail, the purpose of a special is to get rid of extra food.
“Specials are there to disappear throughout the evening,” the reality star told the paper.
It seems to make sense; if you’re running a restaurant and you have a bunch of, say, catfish, you can either throw it away or run a special to get rid of it. However, in some cases, the special truly is…well, special.
“I’ve heard that ‘don’t buy the special’ thing before, and I think it’s mostly bogus,” Amanda said. “Some restaurants just try to get rid of old inventory through the specials, I’m sure, but at an upscale restaurant, that’s not what’s happening. The chef’s probably trying something out before adding it to the regular menu, or maybe he has a limited supply of some seasonal ingredient.”
“The special isn’t always the best value, but if you eat [at a certain restaurant] regularly and you like the rest of the menu, go ahead and try it.”
How can you tell if you’re in one of those upscale restaurants?
“Ask how long they’ll have the special,” Amanda says. “If it’s a daily or weekly thing, it’s likely legitimate. If your server can’t answer—well, there’s your answer. There’s nothing ‘special’ about that sort of special.”
So, that’s restaurants…what about grocery stores?
“[Marketing] used to be all about the product, now it’s all about the customer’s experience,” Georganne Bender, partner at Kizer & Bender. Her firm helps retailers design store layouts, market new products, and improve their sales. “Obviously, there’s a benefit to the retailer, but the purpose of it is to make people feel better when they’re in the store and make it easy for them.”
We spoke with Bender to find out about the methods that grocery stores use to keep shoppers moving—and how some of those techniques can compel people to buy things they don’t really need.
The supermarket starts selling as soon as you walk in the door.
Well, to be fair, the selling starts before you walk in the door, since retailers carefully control things like parking space availability to ensure a positive experience. Once you’re in, however, you’ll be immediately presented with a selection of seasonal items.
“When you go into stores, you’ll see things called merchandise outposts, which are generally tables of merchandise that is somewhere in the aisles of the store,” Bender says, “but because there’s an event or holiday coming up, they bring it out to other areas of the store. It’s called cross-merchandising.”
The merchandise outpost is a type of “speed bump,” and whether or not you buy something, you’ll likely pause for a moment to check out the new items.
“They work the same way speed bumps in parking lots work,” Bender says. “They slow you down. When you walk into a store, you’re thinking about all of the things you have to do for the day, and your list, and you’re getting your kids organized. When you walk in, they want to put something that makes you stop and look.”
If you’re moving more slowly, you’re more prone to making an impulsive purchase or adding a few items to your list.
They put the products they really want you to notice at eye level.
This might not come as a surprise; most parents already know that retailers keep candies and sweet cereals at kids’ eye levels.
“When kids walk down the aisle, they see candy and ask Mom for it,” Bender says. Retailers also make sure that adults walk right past the must-see items.
“Eye level is considered buy level,” Bender says. “It’s exactly 5 foot 4 inches, the height of an average woman.”
Name-brand items are typically the more expensive products in grocery stores, and that’s why they want you to buy them. To help persuade you, stores place these items at eye level so you’re less likely to keep searching the shelves once you see them.
Recently, a new trend called “vertical slicing” has started replacing some eye-level positioning. The retailers lay out items across several shelves in vertical “slices,” which keeps the brand in front of customer’s eyes.
“Say there’s a display and it’s got four different kinds of liquid detergent, they’ll put a vertical slice of [each] one. It doesn’t matter which shelf the customer’s looking at, they’re going to see that product.”
They understand that you shop differently if you’re eating healthy.
“We’ve been kind of trained from the time we were little, when we went shopping with our parents, that you grab a shopping cart and you go up and down every aisle,” Bender says.
“But if you’re eating healthier, there’s a good chance that you don’t go up and down every aisle,” she continues. “You just shop the perimeter.”
Store owners know that, so they’ll place must-see items in “end caps,” which cap off each aisle.
“The end caps [near the] meat department might be something that they don’t want you to miss,” Bender says. “They’ll put the things they don’t want you to miss in areas adjacent to the perimeter, sometimes in the perimeter.”
If you’re trying to eat healthy, you might want to avoid those end caps entirely. Good luck—they’re designed to grab your attention.
The milk’s in the back, but probably not for the reason you’d expect.
Retailers typically put milk, eggs, and other essentials toward the back of the store. That’s to get people to walk through the entire store to get those must-have items, right?
Well, not exactly. Milk needs to stay cold (duh), and the freezers and refrigerators are typically in the back. They could build the refrigerators in the front, but they don’t.
Why? NPR’s Planet Money interviewed a few experts to find out, but their results weren’t exactly conclusive.
“I tell the retailers to put the milk in the front of the store for the convenience of the customers, and the retailers, typically, ignore my advice and put the milk in the back of the store where they’ve been putting it for 70 to 80 years,” retail consultant Burt Flickinger told the show.
While grocery store designers carefully plan out every aspect of the shopping experience, they’re creatures of habit just like everyone else. While some might put those necessities in the back as a way of upselling customers, most simply do it because they’ve never considered the alternative.
Many stores have scent machines, and when they don’t, they improvise.
Fragrances can be incredibly compelling to shoppers. Scent marketing services like ScentAir help retailers retain their customers by pumping certain aromas through stores with discreet devices (they offer similar services for casinos and other businesses).
“It’s called aromacology,” Bender says. “When we smell something, it takes us back immediately to the first place we smelled it. So if you walk through the bakery and smell chocolate chip cookies, there’s a really good chance that that’s going to take you back to being a little kid at home with your mom or Grandma making cookies. Scents make us feel good.”
“That’s why, if the store’s not using a machine like a ScentAir machine, they’ll either have flowers right near the front door, or the bakery’s close to the front door. It puts us in a good mood. ”
That music is nice and upbeat for a reason.
Ever find yourself tapping your toe as you make your way down the aisles? Stores select music very carefully to keep you shopping. They pay hefty music licensing fees to organizations like ASCAP, and many also invest in services like SiriusXM Music for Business, which pipes in carefully tailored playlists to keep shoppers in a good mood.
“They play music because it’s comforting for you to shop with music,” Bender says, “and the type of store [determines] the type of music they play. When Rich [Kizer] and I are designing stores, we always tell them to play upbeat music like disco.”
Yes, you read that right: disco.
“Disco is the sound of money,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, the beat makes you feel good. You’ll stay longer in the store, and you’ll spend more.”
We’ve never heard disco described as “the sound of money,” but somehow, that sounds about right.
Some major retail chains are trying to change this tactic. For decades, Target hasn’t played background music, possibly because they target mothers with young children who might appreciate the peace and quiet. Recently, the chain started introducing music in some stores in an effort to revive its sales.
“When you go into those stores, it’s too quiet,” Bender says. “If the store isn’t busy and you’re walking around a giant store and there’s no sound at all.”
They don’t redesign the store just to throw you off.
One common myth suggests that grocery stores undergo redesigns just to change their regular customers’ shopping habits. Bender says that while some retailers might occasionally reorganize their products to sell them more effectively, they try to avoid massive changes—and they certainly try to make those changes easy on their customers.
“Our grocery store just did a complete re-lay, and it really messes you up for a while until you learn it again,” she says. “We become accustomed to where things are, and that’s why people become so loyal to their favorite grocery store. They know where everything is.”
Some stores try to make re-designs easier by positioning staff members at the end of each aisle. Bender notes that one store even handed out maps to visitors.
So there you have it: the truth about why grocery stores are the way they are.
Are they designed with profits in mind? Sure. But is it nefarious? Eh, not quite.
“[A lot of people] try to make retailers out to be these bad guys who just want your money,” Bender says. “They’re not. They’re just business people who want their customers to have a comfortable experience.”
Speaking of buying things and customer comfort: There are ways you can hack your shopping experience.
Starting off with a list—extra points if it has built-in visual cues, like a full spread of items that you can mark throughout the week as you run out—is a great way to streamline the process since you can generate the list as you go, and it’ll keep you from making any impulse buys once you’re in the store.
If you want to help save the planet, bring your own eco-friendly shopping bag (or bags, let’s be honest), and if you have a grabby baby in tow, you can help distract them from all those strategically placed, eye-level goodies by plopping them in something like this Brica Go Shop Baby Shopping Cart Cover, which comes equipped with toy loops and a smartphone pouch.
Finally, having a place in your trunk to store cold items for the drive and organize the groceries once you buy them can mean the difference between eggs and cracked eggs, ice cream and just cream—these are important distinctions, especially when your schedule or your budget won’t allow two-a-day grocery trips.