Controlling the thrill of the till


It’s not the first place that springs to mind when indulging in retail therapy; nor for that matter is Darwin’s theory of evolution. Surprisingly, these are the precise lodestones which can underpin our shopping choices and make us part with more cash than intended. Think of yourself as a savvy shopper? Think again. There are ways and means of making you spend. Welcome to the casino of the mind.

As the big ‘R’ continues to downsize our collective spending power, retailers are under considerable pressure to keep the tills ringing; in particular with a new breed of bargain hunters afoot. It appears the old vanguard of chill-out music, pastel colours and olfactory seduction simply isn’t enough to keep shoppers in store.

According to consumer expert Tina Leonard, a recent report on the summer sales, published by Retail Excellence Ireland, showed that June was the 40th month in a row that retailers saw sales decline. “Retail sales fell by 6pc over the last year,” she says “with electrical and ladies fashion shops particularly hit.”

The fact is we want more for less and nothing feels quite like bagging a bargain. From the rush of feel-good pheromones to the brain, to the seeming validation of one’s fiscal prowess; not to mention the attendant tales of heroic sale slaying that accompanies one’s retail kill, a sale is a powerful tool when wielded.

Phrases like ‘shop now’, ‘last chance to buy’, ‘must have’ and ‘going going gone’ are more than just a simple retail entreaty; they appeal to our most primal instinct — survival.

Philip Graves, author of Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth About Consumers, and the Psychology of Shopping, espouses this theory, claiming sales create a sense of scarcity — a red flag to the hunter-gatherer which can compel us to make snap decisions. Moreover, the thrill of the bargain, he claims, carries similar parallels to that of gambling, with the sale sniper displaying a skewed impression of their shopping prowess; more focused on hitting their target.

Indeed, this feeding frenzy is not limited to the high street. Online flash sale and auction sites like TheOutnet and Gilt Groupe (whose international HQ opens in Ireland this year) are a part of a new trend that has effectively tapped into this evolutionary competitive streak.

So how does it work? Once customers pre-register online, emails are then sent about an hour before a sale announcing featured deals on designer swag from otherwise budget-busting Balmain jackets to hot labels like Halston with as much as 70% off. Once the sale starts, registrants customarily have a 15-minute window in which to stake their claim.

Given it takes 20 minutes to regain full mental control once your brain has been flooded with endorphins, you’ve just bought yourself a Chloe handbag you didn’t need. But it’s pretty isn’t it? Or is it, asks shopping expert Sinead Van Kampen (

“It’s a very rare thing to actually be happy with an impulse purchase once you’ve worn it a couple of times,” she advises. “Boring, I know, but writing a list and sticking to it is key.”

Not so easy it seems. Additional lures such as store-branded cards which encourage repeat purchases add to what psychologists term ‘the cognitive disconnect’ — a condition whereby the brain disassociates from a particular action. In this case, hard-earned cash is replaced with easy-to-use plastic; much like gambling chips in casinos. The result? Customers spend now but pay the price later with hefty APRs that can reach as much as 20%.

If store credit fails to tempt, there’s always the ‘free’ loyalty card — a reward scheme which compensates for repeat purchases with discounts and special offers. But beware, Tina Leonard warns, Big Brother is watching you. “Loyalty cards are crucial so that the store can get information on everything you buy, and all data collected is stored and analysed,” she remarks. “The store will also be able to see if there are a lot of families with children shopping in the store or if the customers are mainly singletons and this will affect how products are displayed, in what prominence, where in the store and what promotions they carry.”

This feeling of being rewarded or valued; part of a shopping experience is a form of ego-stroking matched only by the more Machiavellian vanity sizing. Having a fat day? Not anymore! By making clothes bigger, women are forced to buy smaller and thus emotionally connect with the shop in question. The skinnier the tag, the fatter the profit margins. Cha-ching!

And if that wasn’t convincing enough, a slimming mirror ought to do the trick. Much like Alice’s view through the Looking Glass, one’s figure can often appear svelter with the help of some clever optical angles. Although certain retailers deny the existence of such stratagems, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests they are more than just urban myth.

“Don’t get me wrong,” claims shopaholic Jane (34). “I’m not against being duped into believing myself thinner — and will quite happily pay for the privilege. I often go to certain shops because I am a 12 as opposed to my real size — a 14. The problem is when you try on clothes elsewhere or see your reflection in a real mirror and then reality hits. Bang!”

Indeed with incorrect size returns accounting for approximately 12% of all store refunds, it seems the term ‘off the rack’ could well be a thing of the past. With the help of Twitter and Facebook, the burning question: ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ can be answered even when shopping solo.

The Tweet Mirror, a new form of assistive consumer technology allows customers to try on outfits which can be photographed and shared in real time with Twitter followers. Recently piloted in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre and brought to the public’s attention by retail guru Mary Portas on Channel 4’s Secret Shopper, the high-tech gadget is being hailed as a veritable fashion tardis but whose benefit does it serve?

“Social shopping is ok if done honestly,” says Van Kampen, “but I really wouldn’t like six likes on my Facebook profile every time I buy a pair of knickers. For the most part it simply works to give free advertising to stores.”

It may be a while before retailers adopt such Dr Who widgetry but in the meantime, the retail landscape offers enough food for thought when shopping. Just remember to avoid those impulse items at the checkout.

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