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Tips & Bits #45: How Clever Retailers “Prime” The Customer To Buy

Think you’ve never been “primed” like a pump? Don’t believe that your subconscious mind can be influenced without your realizing it? Whole Foods Market and others are doing it every day.

Fact: It’s highly probable that you were primed the last time you went shopping.

Take Whole Foods for example. You know this upscale market chain for selling high quality, fresh, and environmentally friendly produce. Their selection of organic food and take-away meals are wholesome, hearty, and delicious.

But reflect on how they present their wares. Careful planning goes into every detail that meets your eye. Retailers employ many strategies to encourage consumers to spend more than they need –or intend to. And Whole Foods are at the forefront of consumer priming.

On a recent visit to a Whole Foods store, the following tactics were encountered:

Placed directly adjacent to the entrance is a display of a freshly cut flowers. These are known as "symbolics"—or unconscious suggestions telling us that all of the wares inside are bursting with freshness.

Flowers are among the freshest, most perishable item available. That’s why fresh flowers are placed right up front–to "prime" us into thinking of freshness as we enter the store. Now that we’ve been primed, we continue to carry that association with freshness subconsciously as we shop.

The prices for the flowers and all the fresh fruits and vegetables are hand-printed in chalk on old-school black slate boards–a tradition of outdoor European marketplaces. It’s as if the unloaded the produce fresh from the farm that very morning.

This technique also suggests that the price changes daily, just as it might at a roadside stand or local market. But most of the produce was flown in days ago, its price set at Whole Foods corporate headquarters in Texas. Not only are the prices fixed, but what looks like chalk on the board is permanent; the signs have been mass-produced in a factory.

Notice that ice is used liberally everywhere in the store. Does hummus really need to be kept cold? What about the cucumber-and-yogurt dip? Neither one does. The ice is another symbolic.

In the same vein, other supermarkets regularly sprinkle vegetables with a fine spray of water. Like ice displays, the sprinkling serves as a symbolic of freshness and purity. (Ironically, that same mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would if left alone.)

As we stroll into the fresh fruit section, we encounter a selection of bananas. Once again, there’s more here than meets the eye. Banana growers have turned the farming of bananas into a science to manipulate perceptions of freshness.

In fact, there’s a banana guide which illustrates the various colors a banana will turn during its life (or rather death) cycle. Each color represents the sales potential for the banana. For example, sales data shows that bananas with Pantone color 13-0858 (also known as Vibrant Yellow) are less likely to sell than bananas with Pantone color 12-0752 (also called Buttercup), which is one grade warmer, and seems like a riper, more desirable fruit.  Growers have analyzed the sales effects of all varieties of color and, as a result, plant their crops under conditions best suited to achieving the optimal ‘color.’

Now, turn your attention to those cardboard boxes with eight to ten fresh cantaloupes packed inside. These boxes could have been unpacked easily by any one of Whole Foods’ employees, but they’re left that way on purpose. Why? To achieve a rustic, fresh-from-the-field touch. It’s yet another symbolic to reinforce the idea of old-time simplicity.

But wait, something about these boxes looks a bit abnormal. Upon close inspection, this stack of crates is actually a single oversized cardboard box with fissures cut down the side that faces consumers to make it appear as if it was a stack of multiple boxes. It’s deviously clever in its ability to evoke the image of a Farmer’s Market of old.

Buyers beware! Retailers have mastered the art of priming. You really can be manipulated without being aware that it is happening.

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