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The psychology of retail marketing




 It’s a jungle in there. Literally, from the brain’s point of view, when your customers walk into your store, regions of their brains react the same way they did when our ancient predecessors made their dangerous progress across the Serengeti.


In this sense, shopping is very serious business, requiring survival skills developed over thousands of years.

For example, what would you guess would alarm the subconscious, setting off a 100,000-year-old internal warning system as you wander the aisles?

The answer is something as common as an end cap. It triggers what neuroscience describes as an avoidance response deep within the subconscious. The sharp edges of the metal shelves pose a potential threat —just as the sharp tip of a branch would on the savannah. Shoppers could be blinded, cut, perhaps bleed to death.

Ridiculous in today’s world? Of course, but the brain still registers the danger and responds accordingly. It alerts the body to the subconsciously perceived threats and directs shoppers to avoid them.

The brain is geared, from evolution’s millennia, to seek out and protect you from the dangers that lurk around you. That sharp corner—of the end cap or your kitchen cabinet—represents just such a threat, and your brain cannot help but react instantaneously, and subconsciously, to avoid it.

The brain dislikes straight lines and sharp edges. Where possible, avoiding incorporating sharp lines in a store setting makes the experience much more pleasing to the brain.

In many studies across categories and retailers, we have found display devices with rounded edges to have greater levels of neurological effectiveness, and shelf dividers known as “blades” with rounded edges to outperform regular linear dividers. The lesson here is to remove the perceived threat that sharp edges present, and the uber-watchdog, that 24/7 sentry sitting atop your shoulders—your subconscious mind—will relax and be happy.


This principle was confirmed in a recent study for another food manufacturer. Here’s what we did, and what we discovered:

  • Variables tested: three aisle designs (one with rounded edges)
  • Gender map: 50 percent male and 50 percent female
  • Findings: the design with rounded corners significantly outperformed the other two designs. Rolling this out in test markets resulted in a significant increase in sales—15 percent. That’s how much the brain likes rounded edges.



What else prompts your subconscious to respond when you’re roaming the retail range?

Our in-store studies have revealed another intriguing fact. It appears the brain prefers natural textures. The exact same aisles with the same products and features with alterations in textures performed significantly differently, the key learning being natural textures seem to evoke a deep emotional response in the brain. We humans are creatures of nature, and as such, we are neurologically oriented to find the sight, feel, scent, and even the sound of things like wood, grass, leaves, and water familiar, comfortable, and inviting.


The subconscious can be “fooled” to a limited degree, though. For example, plastic representations of wooden surfaces can substitute for the real thing, if executed authentically and plausibly.







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