Trolleyology – the New Battlefield

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

It started as an idea to explore trolleyology. Not the trolleyology as defined in the United States – “making judgements about people from their shopping”. In the US version it’s become very popular and widely discussed as a means of matching and dating. Would you go out with someone who only bought ‘value’ or ‘standard’ range products?

The trolleyology I was interested in was the psychology of supermarkets. This is an exploration of the way supermarkets seduce customers with their cunning use of music, colour, product positioning etc. I had discovered a number of interesting aspects; For instance did you know that most supermarkets are designed with the entrance on the left to encourage shoppers to walk around the store in a clock-wise direction which feels more comfortable and natural? Or that there’s a company that sells canisters of coffee and bread smells to pump through the air-conditioning. I also found out that aisles had curved ends to make sure the customer’s eye never leaves the produce.

I found that the choice of music could be extremely problematic for supermarket psychologists. Research shows that slow instrumental music means people spend more time in the store. This is usually a good thing and something supermarkets encourage in other ways – lack of windows to block out reality which often makes people unaware of the time. However the willingness to purchase decreases when this type of music is playing. So, it’s a tough decision. One other piece of research showed that when a supermarket played French music more French wine was sold, and when they played German music more German wine was sold.

So, having discovered a fair amount on the various old-fashioned techniques supermarkets use to get the maximum amount of money out of customers I thought I’d look at the new battlefield – the web site.

It was interesting and paralleled three of the main principles of trolleyology. Firstly the experience is designed to be as pleasant and easy as possible – people are more likely to spend money if they’re happy. Secondly people are encouraged to stay online for as long as possible – while they are online they’re more likely to be spending money and finally people are persuaded to buy the products the retailer can make the most money from – often own label products .

I looked at all the major retailers and found very little difference in the ‘tactics’ used. The first screens tend to be the equivalent of the ‘transit zone’ in supermarkets. The transit zone is that ‘dead’ area for selling where the baskets and information is kept. Shoppers need this space to acclimatise to the store. It’s a similar process on the websites. The supermarkets establish their credibility and trust and make it feel safe to shop. One of the key aspects of this is the logo. Logos are interesting. Most sites have a logo that emphasises solidity like TESCO or ASDA. Others adopt a solid minimalist approach combining strength with a modern look e.g. “YOUR M&S”. Others go with that symbolism then add a statement in computer-fashioned handwriting, e.g. Sainsbury “Try something new today”. This aims for the solidity combined with old-fashioned values. The logo design combined with the safe, solid colour scheme is designed to put the shopper at ease and develop a sense of trust.

Colours aren’t just chosen at random here. There’s a great deal of thought and philosophy going on here. In Eastern philosophy colours correspond with the seven energy centres (chakras) of the body and have powerful meanings. Consciously, or subconsciously these tie in neatly with many of the colour schemes. For instance, Morrison’s have a different colour design for each aspect of their website;

For the section on ‘stores and services’ the green colour represents heart and love, ‘special offers’ are yellow representing emotions,

violet represents spirit and vitality for ‘new store openings’,

orange represents endurance for ‘company information’.

The blue that dominates Tesco and other websites represents strength, dignity, calm and trustworthiness. Navy blue in particular is reliable and responsible. It appeals to the older audience and reduces blue pressure. Offers are frequently in red which emotes aggression and is attention grabbing. It can increase the heart rate and blood pressure.

Many stores ‘Christmas’ website areas are in direct contrast to their traditional colour scheme. Waitrose incorporate a great deal of chocolate brown which represents an affinity with nature. Whilst Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer feature a rich red design which in Western culture suggests feelings of sophistication and is meant to be welcoming.

Once you start shopping and get through the initial screen and into the shopping area you’ll find the exciting items first – i.e., at the top left corner of the screen. The first area you come across on the Tesco site is intriguingly labelled . Leaving the introductory screens you’re bombarded by rich reds, images and offers and ‘Christmas’ (standing out in red from the other white labels). Having recovered and perhaps picked up a few bargains its back to the more mundane blues of the groceries shopping.

Firstly there’s the login screen – nice and straightforward. Then there’s another ‘transit zone’. There’s lots of reassuring black text and a photograph of a nice ripe red strawberry. From the top and from the left Christmas again features extremely large. In the top left corner – ‘Everything for Christmas’.

Clicking on this and you’re back to the rich reds and mouth-watering photograph of brie, grapes and a strawberry. There’s a lot of help to sort everything out for you. This is known as ‘clustering’. In a supermarket you would tend to have the pasta section with pasta, of course, pasta sauces, pesto, tomato puree, colanders, everything including the salt you may need for cooking. On special promotions you may even get wine, Italian music, etc…

Click on < Christmas essentials > and you get the clustering (in spades). On the ‘Don’t forget’ list you get 41 items not to forget including toilet tissue, cranberry sauce, Christmas pudding, batteries, turkey foil and Whiskas Pouch Chicken in Jelly. Incidentally there’s an interesting feature on the Christmas pages called the ‘present selector’. You type in who it’s for (for him, for her, for kids)) and how much you love them (under a tenner, £10 -£19, … over £100) and press ENTER. Typing in ‘for her – under £10’ shows you all the options at all the prices. ‘For him – over £100’ gives all the options as well. It panders to the feeling that you’ve had some choice – taken some control. It’s an illusion really.

Back to the . As with the physical supermarket first impressions are vital. In a store it’s fresh fruit and vegetables. Online it’s fresh fruit and vegetables. The first screen has that perfect red strawberry sitting in a bed of text.

Click on and you get a photograph entitled ‘PURE INDULGENCE ‘with some gorgeous looking steak dish (well to some – missed me with this one being a vegetarian). Still, clicking on this image gives you lots of ideas for ‘Scrumptious starters’, ‘Mouth-watering mains’, Delicious desserts’ and ‘ Delightful drinks’. All with extremely attractive meals and designed to assault your taste buds.

Supermarkets are designed so that the essentials are scattered to different locations at the back of the stores. This forces shoppers to walk through the more exciting (higher mark-up) aisles. The basics are available and listed on the left hand side, but are grouped with other items. For example bread is in ; vegetables are in .

Looking at the process of buying and comparing price can be extremely complicated. For instance, looking on the Sainsbury’s site for apples the first three items were;

‘Mr Men organic apples £1.99 / unit (£2.84 / Kg)’

‘Sainsbury Apple and grape bites £0.54 / unit (£0.68 / 100 g)’

‘Sainsbury Apples, basics £0.69 / unit (£0.09 each)’.

It’s nice to see the concept of confusion marketing has extended to this area of the internet already.

I digress. Buying a loaf of bread can’t be too difficult though can it? Clicking on a very interesting sub-menu pops up. It has at the top. Then it seems to be in alphabetical order for a while – , , , etc. However right at the eye-catching bottom of the list, where the reading finishes and the eye lingers, is . It’s a similar pattern for other items in the Fresh Fruit category. Finest* is Tesco’s own quality (and I would guess) their high profit range.

Anyway let’s try to ignore that range and go for boring sliced white bread < Bread- Sliced Loaves> . Another choice appears including < Standard White Bread> and .

Value (25p) sounds really cheap so I choose that one. Clicking on the text to give an image and the picture is of an unloved, squashed, not very nice-looking loaf of bread. Let’s try standard (43p). .No image available. Why is that I wonder? Is standard white bread so rare in Tesco’s they can’t find one to take a photograph of? Unfortunately there’s no information either. I must say the ‘more information’ on all sites I looked at is really mixed. Sometimes, on Tesco, Waitrose especially there’s excellent information on nutritional values, descriptions, etc. Waitrose even recommend what else you should buy to go with your selection – How thoughtful of them. However often there’s no information at all.

Back to the bread. I can’t choose standard as I can’t see what it looks like and it reminds me too much of ‘average’ in school which means anything but average. Also, there may be an American watching and studying my purchases for ‘trolleyology’ purposes.

(choice of 17) is basically brand leaders – Hovis, Kingsmill, Mothers Pride (82 p a loaf or so). Looks good. A nice picture and lots of information on ingredients, storage, usage, nutritional values.

Now for (choice of 3 Tesco products and 5 others). – Hovis (94 p) so it must be better.

Scroll down and find Tesco finest* crusty white bread (82p). Super premium for the price of premium and it’s the finest – Better buy it quick.

So, even though you’re able to buy anything without leaving the comfort of your computer desk chair you’re not safe from the same old tricks and techniques shopkeepers have always used to get you to part with your money. It’s not even any subtler, which, I guess is some relief. Unless it’s so subtle I haven’t spotted it?

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