Selling to the herd

One of the things about humans is we are whether we like it or not a herd animal. We have an instinct to move as a group and our primitive brain responds just like a herding animal. When creating interaction paths even in digital purchasing, you can use this aspect of human nature. Supermarkets are a shining example of how you can sell to the herd.

Human herd

Humans display herding behaviour in a number of ways. Whilst I’m not going to cover it too much in this post, herding behaviour is a really interesting thing to look into. Crowd psychology is something along with the Information Cascade, I’d really suggest as interesting reading.

Supermarkets are masters of getting us to buy things. They do this in a vast number of subtle and less subtle ways – some good and some questionable. From the music used to the size of the basket and position of the goods. Psychological tricks and guides are at play in all areas of the supermarket.

One exit

The most obvious one is the path that supermarkets take you on. There literally is one exit. This is also clearly marked and you without thinking are guided through to it. The key here is without thinking. Each aisle is placed with thought but requires you as a human to not think about it. The supermarket equivalent of a and b testing is moving an aisle around.

The aisles are clearly marked, there is no guessing. Big graphics guide you through if you look up, product types guide you if you just follow the shelves. The journey they are taking you on is carefully planned. Think of how a farmer guides their herd into milking or sheep into a pen using a sheep dog. This is what supermarkets are doing to us.

Positioning and highlighting

Where a product is displayed not only in aisle order but in shelve order is also key to purchase. A simple example would be placing more expensive things at eye level. Same goes with the ‘gut purchase’ shelves put at the end of aisles that highlight special offers.

The way the shelf and aisle is designed too is important. Think about lighting for example shining down on specific things or designed to make it’s aisle’s contents more appealing. A good example of this is the fruit and vegetable section. This is often very different to the other areas of the supermarket. It’s more the ’market’ designed and usually has more natural spot lights.

In a short but interesting article on ’The Psychology behind Supermarkets’, Dr Harrison uses the term “psychological funnels” for aisle and how they prepare shoppers for what is at the end. This is a really interesting way to see this and think about how you can use this with interactive paths. In part you are setting up a reward status at the end through focusing.

Engaging the primitive

Most of the techniques used to sell to us are aimed directly at our basic instincts. They aren’t designed to get us thinking, they are designed to get us to not think and just purchase. It’s an unconscious drive that they are trying to cause. The state of ‘just doing’ is one that leads you to make the purchasing decisions they want. To buy the product they highlighted, to go down the aisles they want you to.

Out of the real world

How does this apply to digital interactions? Well you still have paths. One of the most important things you can do is to know your user paths. What journey are you taking them on? What funnels are you leading them down to get to which reward? You can also use things like positioning and highlighting.

Friction caution

A big thing you need to be careful of is to make something subtle enough to not cause friction. Humans don’t do well with friction. If you think about herd mentality and what happens when something spooks the herd. Making something too obvious a herding technique and the herd will turn. The key is to make it natural and appear to be a choice.

Whilst humans love to be guided, the idea that we aren’t being unsettles us. It’s when that idea is obvious we then loose faith, we refuse to bond or purchase as to us trust has been broken. That leads to all manner of seperation from the seller. As a result, often that can’t be regained. This has happened with a lot of brands in the past.

Psychologically questionable

It has to be noted that a lot of the methods used to make us purchase could be labelled questionable. However, it’s just like anything, also able to be used to avoid friction and help someone get to their purchasing choice. As with anything, it’s about using responsibly.

Further reading

How we are guided to buying what we do I find really interesting. I thought I would share some further reading.

Harvard Business Review: Please touch the merchandise.
Science Daily: A closer look at the consuming gaze.
Environmental Psychology study into store atmosphere.
Psychology Today: The Neuroscience of holiday shopping.
Bon Appetite: Psychology of supermarkets.

There is a book also called Buyology that I’m reading at the moment and recommend if nothing else for some eye opening reading. It’s a little bit wordy to get through but there are some really interesting insights hidden in those words.

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