Black Friday: Neuroscience of shopping

PORTLAND - If it seems like retailers have their holiday sales pitch down to a science, you're not too far from the truth. Those familiar carols, red and green ribbons and fake piles of snow form part of a sophisticated sales technique rooted in psychology as much as retail.

And those props you're seeing are likely bigger and brighter than ever - the goal this year is to get you to look up from your phone.

"A lot of retailers and marketers are trying to find new ways of getting our attention," says David Fredrickson, founder of Portland's figureplant design and fabrication. "Our attention span is about 12 inches," he says - about the distance from your eyes to your phone screen. The challenge, he says, is to craft displays and sales environments that can penetrate that space, invite you to browse the shelves instead of the Internet and create new sales opportunities.

His shop has been hard at work making holiday decorations for Microsoft stores - including huge wreaths of color-coded glass ornaments, specially attuned to the season and the store brand. The cultivation of the cool-factor is deliberate: eye-catching designs are likely to end up on Instagram or Facebook where the beauty will beckon others into the store. "People take video of it or post it and then everyone is talking about it," says figureplant General Manager John Ceniceros. "People tweet it and we get lots of eyes that way."

But other marketers move beyond cool - and straight into mind manipulation- using some simple shopping sleight-of-hand. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Give shoppers a bigger cart, the thinking goes, and they'll buy more to fill it.
  • Signs that entice you to buy in multiples: 5 for $10, or 'Maximum 3 per Shopper' are surprisingly effective.
  • Snob factor: batteries for example, are usually stocked near the front of the store, where everyone is there to see - making you less likely to buy generic.
  • Seeing triple: studies show that people have a hard time choosing between two items of similar price and quality, and are likely to leave the store empty handed. But if there's a third, noticeably inferior product next to them, we're more able to decide which is 'best' and make a buy.

Figureplant's Fredrickson says he prefers his clients stick to good marketing and not resort to mind games: "I think generally, shoppers and consumers are pretty savvy about knowing when they're being manipulated and when they're not. If you have to manipulate, is your product or service really up to snuff?"