A bunch of you have asked, so here’s a copy of something close to the script that was used for the narration for the CBS Sunday Morning piece I did that ran last week. As you can see, TV makes for a more skeletal analysis. But the pictures do help.
Will this year’s buying season be big enough to bail us out of a recession? Can we somehow get ourselves to consume our way to economic salvation? Is there a light at the end of this dark night?
Christmas, like the pagan solstice holidays that came before it, was put at the end of the year for a reason. It brings good cheer and some rays of hope to the darkest days of winter. And now Christmas is being asked to revive not only our spirit, but our sadly depressed moving averages, daily yields, and GNP.
We might have days off for Christmas, but they’re not days off work, at all. In fact, the moment we leave the office, our real employment as Americans begins: the hard, grueling work of SHOPPING. It’s time to save the national economy, folks; desperate measures must be taken.
Which brings us here. This may look like an average suburban shopping mall to you — but today’s retail environments are selling machines engineered to extract the most money per second from your wallet.
The science of retail design – what the industry calls ‘atmospherics’ – was born by accident in 1956, with the very first shopping mall, “the southdale center” in Minnesota. This realization of an “indoor main street” provided laboratory conditions for the study and influence of shopping behavior.
Psychologists observed that the overwhelming size and scope of an entirely self-
contained universe has a strange effect on shoppers. It’s called “Gruen Transfer,” named for the designer of the first shopping mall, Victor Gruen.
Gruen Transfer is the moment a person senses the size the mall – their jaws may open, their eyes may glaze over for a just a second. And they are transformed from a person who came to the mall for a purpose, into a shopping drone. Ripe for the next battery of psychological assaults.
The first tactic is to keep people inside the mall – the longer they stay, the more they buy.
The key is to disorient them. At least three turns from parking lot to mall entrance prevents shoppers from remembering where they’ve put the car. There’s no way out.
Inside, malls are timeless and bland – a strict monotonous palette throughout.
Early malls were sealed from daylight, like casinos designed to keep gamblers from realizing how long they’ve been playing. But more recent testing showed shoppers felt claustrophobic – and stay inside longer if they are allowed to catch just a glimpse of sky.
Careful lighting still keeps them from perceiving the passage of time. As the sun goes down, these lightbulbs slowly fade up.
Complex floor plans help keep patrons from knowing exactly where they are. They’re not supposed to.
“We want you to get lost,” explained one leading mall designer.
You can’t turn right at the ATRIUM – you have to veer right, each turn disorienting you further. The more lost you are, the more impulsive purchases you make. What did I come here for, anyway?
So you forgot – it doesn’t matter. As long as you ring up more total purchases, everyone will be happy.
Once disorientation is achieved, the retailers begin their attacks on the senses:
Start with Sight:
Because they’re lost, patrons use the only images they recognize as anchors: the big-name department stores. You don’t go ‘north’ – you move towards Macy’s. These “Anchor” stores are always placed at angles to each other, so that you can’t see one from the entrance of another. Each anchor presides over its own section of the mall, like a reigning emperor – and a visual landmark.
Besides, studies show that a shopper won’t voluntarily travel more than 600 feet, so the hallway has to bend before then.
Then there’s the sense of Touch:
Designers often use hard floor surfaces in the halls and softer ones inside the store – gently coaxing customers to come inside if they want their feet to feel good. Other studies show that women feel more powerful – and buy more – if they can feel and hear their heels clicking on polished hard wood.
Which brings us to Sound:
We all joke about “elevator” Muzak – but it works. Dozens of different soundtracks scientifically engineered to increase the rate at which we purchase products at any moment of the day – is pumped into the mall and the stores. There’s a special and tested melody, rhythm and sequence to maximize the efficiency of any shopping behavior you can imagine.
Don’t forget taste:
Free food lures strollers into shops. It’s always visible from the corridor
Eating food turns customers, quite literally, into consumers.
They even use Smell:
Cookie shops spread scents throughout the mall, attracting customers from hundreds of feet away. One study showed that people act nicer – and buy more – when they can smell baking cookies.
More advanced scientists, like those in the “chemo-reception industry,” test flowers, spices, and synthetics for their effects on human behavior.
Williams Sonoma uses a special holiday scent.
Vanilla helps make people feel sexy – perfect to lower inhibitions in the lingerie store.
But even beyond the fives senses, the most advanced attacks are on the emotions – and the subconscious.
Each store has its own carefully researched theme. They are total environments –stage sets where the brand values become OUR values. It’s a self-contained world, where retail psychologists can overwhelm us with the culture of their products. The only way to fit in, is to buy.
The stores also hire their own battalions of behavioral researchers – many of whom use the security cameras to study consumer behaviors, like an anthropologist studying a tribe in its native habitat.
Ever wonder why certain store aisles are so wide? Chalk it up to the butt-brush. If a woman is brushed up against while she inspects a product, she’ll get up and move. Items that require close inspection by women – like scarves and underwear – are put in wider aisles.
Want to know why the counters have gotten so big? Because consumers feel obliged to fill it up with more products when they’re at the register.
And that funny way salespeople have of speaking? It’s all scripted at corporate headquarters. This young man is doing a technique called GAP-ACT:
Greet, Approach, Provide, Add-on, Close and Thank.
We’re all just cogs in the machine –- the shopper, the salesperson, the merchandiser, and even the stockholder depending on them.
So much for passively earned income. Sorry, friends, there ain’t no Santa Claus.
We all end up working for it, in the end. (After all, if people only bought what they actually needed, the entire American economy would collapse.)
I’m Douglas Rushkoff. Happy Holidays.