Why is it so hard to open a bag of potato chips? The secret psychology of consumer engineering that tricks you into buy.

Why is it so hard to open a bag of potato chips?

If you’re like most people, you may try to rip, pull, tear, find the little pre-cut slot, and otherwise mutilate the bag of snacks as you grow increasingly frustrated.

The chip companies are well aware of this inconvenience, yet keep putting out these bags despite plenty of simple solutions that make it easier for consumers. So why do they make bags of chips so difficult to tear open?

Research into consumer behavior shows that consumers are forced to work a little harder to get their food, they’re more likely to enjoy and perceive it as tasting better.

If you’re feeling a little duped, don’t be too hard on yourself because retailers and brands employ subtle psychological tricks and triggers like this in every inch of their stores and every aspect of their branding.

In fact, your experience as a consumer these days – from first seeing an ad to walking out of the store with a sales receipt – is carefully engineered, whether you realize it or not.

Shapes, displays, packaging, colors, music, smells, temperature, layout, fabrics, dress of employees and even how a woman (but never a man) touches you on the arm or the shoulder are all carefully planned prompts, based on neural psychology with the goal of getting you to do one thing: buy.

Here are some facts about consumer engineering and the tricks being played on you every time you walk in a store:

If a salesperson asks you which of two items you prefer (even if you haven’t expressed interest in one or both of them), it’s for a good reason. They know that when asked WHICH you want to buy, a consumer’s mind is more likely to skip over the question, SHOULD I buy at all.

Research shows that when a salesperson offers a confusing sales pitch but then immediately clarifies, the likelihood that you’ll buy that item increases.

The layout of stores is also carefully orchestrated. Basically, once you enter a store, you’re like a lab rat in a maze designed by consumer engineers!

For instance, have you ever noticed that when you go into a grocery store just to pick up a few staples, like milk, bread, or eggs, you have to walk all the way to the back and sometimes the furthest back corner of the store? That’s no accident, as the designers know that you’ll have to make it through myriad temptations and displays of impulse sales in order to get your items and “escape” to the checkout – and few do without picking up extra items.

Likewise, store designers set pathways and shopping aisles to maximize your time in the store and exposure to signature items that will draw you in. Think about how you have to walk through the expensive Duty-Free shops in the airport on the way to your gate.

They also place “roadblocks” in your way that inhibit the flow and slow you down or make you adjust, forcibly noticing displays and certain items.

Stores also maximize center displays and the end of aisles, which are far more likely to attract and engage shoppers.

But most people don’t realize that the highest-grossing items, merchandise for sale, and impulse purchases are also commonly placed on the right-hand side of aisles. They do this because about 90 percent of the population is right-handed, so they’ll be drawn to the right and see those items first, and shoppers usually push their carts on the right of aisles similar to driving a car on the road.

Why do retailers position “impulse items” like batteries, gum, magazines, sales items, at the end of aisles and especially in the checkout line?

A reported 6 percent of the U.S. population are compulsive buyers – which is a major shopping addiction – and almost half of all shoppers give in to these impulse prompts to buy. In fact, a reported 20% of all retail sales this holiday season will be due to impulse items and unplanned purchases.

Do you want to resist the impulse sale? If a consumer walks to a store, instead of driving, the chances that you’ll make an impulse purchase drops by 44 percent.

When surveyed, 66 percent of consumers say that they plan on researching gifts online but then go to a physical store or the mall to actually make the purchase.

Like Pavlov’s dog in the famous experiment about classic conditioning, we nearly salivate when presented with the word “Sale.” In fact, more than 75 percent of consumers polled say that a sale would impact their holiday gift purchases.

Is the music playing in the background of stores an afterthought, played just for entertainment value? Not even close. In fact, consumer psychologists carefully plan every aspect of the music, from song choice to volume and more. They understand that if shoppers like the music that’s playing, they’re more likely to enter a store, spend more time there, try on or touch the merchandise, and, ultimately, purchase. So that’s why you’ll hear Christmas music playing in every store!

But why all of the “elevator music” and mellow, slow versions of popular songs? While the familiarity with popular songs helps, research also shows that the slower the tempo of the music, the slower people will walk around the store. But with a fast song, customers will walk through and even make decisions faster, which means less interactive shopping and sales.

One of the most effective psychological tactics to motivate consumers to buy is the phenomenon of “limiting.” By capping purchases with language like “Limit two per customer,” or “Sale ends soon,” or “One-day sale only,” a fire is lit under shoppers to buy now (and for the maximum allowed) or miss out.

Human emotion is directly linked to the sense of touch. Therefore, when consumers pick up and touch items, they’re more likely to make purchases. That’s why retailers always make sure that items are tactile, easy to pick up, try on, and touch.

Retailers and ad execs know that the color red stimulates spending, so you’ll most commonly see red in advertisements and store logos (think red “sale” signs, the Target logo, etc.)

Even smells are carefully researched and orchestrated. It’s no mystery why stores use the smell of holiday candles and roasted chestnuts or offer free samples of freshly baked cookies to Christmas shoppers.

That’s the same reason restaurants or stores offer freshly popped popcorn, which triggers salivary glands and causes consumers to order more food – or even buy more non-food items.

In fact, one study found that pumping the synthetic smell of apple pie into an appliance store immediately increased the sale of ovens and fridges by 23 percent!

Retailers carefully plan psychological triggers that will make you feel more comfortable and eager to buy, even spending far more than you originally planned. They do this with the use of “social proof” that others are buying, too, and “trust signals” like money-back guarantees and indicators that your greatest risk, in fact, is NOT buying and missing out on such great deals.

They even train their store employees very carefully, especially in high-end and luxury stores. For instance, they’re taught not to ever engage in something called “the butt brush,” the psychological reaction that when a customer’s personal space is encroached upon, even slightly, they’re likely to leave the store, even if they were planning on making a purchase.


Want other psychological secrets, triggers, and ploys that retailers use on you? Look for part two of this article!


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