Consumer psychologist and retail expert Kit Yarrow says consumers are more vulnerable to the symbolic cues retailers use to lure them into spending. She explains why, and offers tips for spotting these hidden tactics.
The world has shifted dramatically over the past 10 years -- culturally, technologically and even socially. Those changes are profoundly reshaping many aspects of our lives, including how we shop.
Not only are consumers more technologically savvy than they used to be, but they also are more isolated, stressed and overwhelmed with constant stimuli, according to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and retail expert and a professor in both psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
"Research shows that although we're still optimists by nature, we're all a bit crankier, edgier and more anxious today," writes Yarrow in her book, "Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy."
All of these factors cause us to react more emotionally to the world around us and make us more susceptible to being influenced by savvy retailers and other organizations.
We're also more distracted and impatient today, and spend less time thinking through our purchases. As a result, we have become more vulnerable to the symbolic cues retailers use to lure us into spending -- such as carefully chosen colors, shapes, images, sounds and even market-tested scents, Yarrow says.
Retailers long have used these subtle cues to influence customers. But those hidden unconscious cues are especially influential with today's customers, according to Yarrow.
"Interruption-driven, overstimulated, distracted consumers have less ability to focus and less conscious brain space available to make decisions," she writes.
Fortunately, you can fight back against these hidden cues simply by being more aware of them, says Yarrow.
CreditCards.com talked with Yarrow about what she learned while researching her book.
Q: You found that consumer psychology has shifted over the past several years. We not only shop differently, we think differently, don't we?
A: Exactly. You know, we've just been through the ringer the past few years, and obviously this has changed us. [Before writing the book,] I noticed changes in the way that people were shopping and buying ... Also, as a human being, I noticed changes in my life.
I then went about conducting research and asking other people about the changes. And it seemed to center around these really big shifts in consumer psychology and around three sociocultural changes. Those have led people to respond emotionally to the world differently, and that also means that they'll purchase differently.
Q: What are some of those changes?
A: I think technology has had more of an impact on us than anyone really realizes. I don't care so much that people use mobile phones to shop. That's not what I was looking at. I was looking at: How are we emotionally, cognitively and relationally different because of our use of technology?
And I just found an overwhelming amount of evidence to support that we multitask more. We connect with people on a little bit more of a superficial level -- not quite as deeply or as intimately. We have shorter attention spans. We need more visual stimulation in order to break through to consciousness, and on and on and on.
The second thing I found was that, apparently, because of our use of technology, but also because of the economy and, you know, the lack of connectedness we have to each other within our communities -- with fewer things that we share together -- people have become a little more individualistic and less community-oriented.
Lastly, people tend to respond with a little higher level of emotionality today. All the research that I found supports that people just don't feel as trusting of social establishments that are supposed to protect them. This has had the effect of making people a little bit more wary, guarded, anxious and self-reliant.
Q: What are some examples of the environmental cues retailers use to influence our purchases?
A: It's engaging any of our five senses. And typically, it's going to be visual cues because our brain just processes visual information so quickly -- which is a match for our limited attention spans today. So visual cues can be anything like using colors to set a mood ... If you're online, it could be creating a scene or a feeling through the images …
People don't necessarily process, "I want to be that person." What they process instead is an attraction to an outfit … So retailers, I think, do a lot of leading through visual images to get people to appreciate a lifestyle or a context. [That leads to] an attraction to a product. So anything like using scents in stores, using visual symbols and images that I just talked about, music. Any way that you engage the senses, I think, is more effective today than it ever was before.
Q: How does creating this environment help prime us to buy?
A: I think people are looking for emotional intensity in their lives. I think there's a dullness about life because of our use of technology. And people are craving more stimulation.
It just takes more to break through today. And so if you get all of the senses involved, I think it's just a more intense emotional message that resonates with consumers today.
Q: Are there any specific colors or scents that stores often use to influence consumers?
A: Probably the most common color used is red. It means "stop" when we're driving, but in the retail world, it means "go." It means "spend." … Red is, you know, a very stimulating color. It has sexual overtones to it. And it draws people's attention and excites them.
But every single color has been well-researched and is associated with particular emotions. So if you want somebody to feel playful or nostalgic or cheerful, there's a color for that. And that's sort of an old trick, where [retailers] use colors to set a mood. But it's never been more potent than it is today.
Q: Are there any other cues you think we should watch out for when we're shopping?
A: If retailers jumble up a lot of merchandise together, it communicates to us that it's a value. It kind of means "sale" to us. So how things are displayed is also a way to give us a cue about pricing strategies. I think the key is to always wonder whether or not that cue is making you think something is affordable, or whether it really is.
Another example of that is that a store might have a few really high-priced items, and then the rest of the merchandise is more reasonably priced. It's called anchoring. If you start out looking at a couple of pricey things, when you get to things that are on sale or less expensive, suddenly they seem like they're cheap or free -- when in fact you could be just thinking that they're inexpensive relative to what you saw when you first came in.
So again, I think what consumers have to do is stop themselves and say, "Wait a minute. Let me just look at this item without any of the other cues that I've seen beforehand and ask myself: Is it worth this to me?"
Q: You write in the book that many shoppers get a dopamine rush when they score an item on sale.
A: Yeah, it feels good!
Q: But you also found that bargain shoppers often wind up spending more than they would otherwise. Why is that? Is it because we're continuing to try to get that dopamine rush?
A: That's exactly right ... For part of my research, I go through people's closets and ask them why they bought what they bought, and how much they wear this or that.
In the clothing arena for example -- I do it in kitchens and bathrooms and all over the house, but let's use clothing as an example -- I very commonly run across consumers that have clothing that they may not have even worn yet, or that they wear really infrequently. And a lot of times it's something they got on sale. Once the thrill of getting it at a cheap price wears off, they realize that it doesn't really fit in with their lifestyle, or maybe they didn't really like it that much ... So they buy more.
So part of it is that they're never really satisfied because they didn't get exactly what they wanted. So they keep shopping, looking for the right thing. But the other part of it is that a lot of times they're just looking for that feeling of the win again and they're more focused on how much money they're saving than how much money they're spending.
Q: Is there anything we can do in the heat of the moment to tamp down that urge to buy?
A: I think one of the things people can do is go through their purchases: What did we eat? What didn't work out? A lot of times, I find that grocery shoppers will buy things that they have a coupon for all the time and they don't really like them. They wouldn't have paid for them. They just got them because there was a coupon …
You can go anywhere that people buy things and have them just take a few moments and look at what they purchased -- what gives them the most pleasure, what really has satisfied them. And that can break people of that habit, once they do a little analysis of shopping successes and failures. Find out what's worked, and what hasn't, and let that be your guide going forward …
No. 2, if you can, wait 20 minutes before buying something. I know with a lot of these outlet malls or bargains, if you put it down, somebody else might get it. Fine, carry it around if you need to. But don’t buy it until you've had a chance to calm down and really think about it.
I've done this experiment where I'll have people fill up a basket online with me -- all the things you think you want to get -- and then I'll distract them in some other way for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I'll ask them, without looking at their basket, "What are the things you're most excited about getting?" Or, "What do you think you're going to get from your basket?" And I'm telling you, people don't remember half the stuff they put in.
So, it's in the moment that people get all excited. If they can delay a little bit, a lot of times they'll find, "Oh, you know, the thing I keep thinking about is just that one item." So just get that one item then, the one that really thrills you, and let the rest go.
See related: How to spend money to buy you happiness