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The way the brain buys – part2

Retailers are making breakthroughs in understanding their customers’ minds. Here is what they know about you

Retailers are making breakthroughs in understanding their customers’ minds. Here is what they know about you 

Oh, that’s what I want!

Despite all the new technology, simply talking to consumers remains one of the most effective ways to improve the “customer experience”. Scott Bearse, a retail expert with Deloitte Consulting in Boston, Massachusetts, has led projects observing and quizzing tens of thousands of customers about how they feel about shopping. It began when a client complained that he had mountains of data on the one in four people that entered his store and bought something, but knew hardly anything about the vast majority who left without making a purchase. The “customer conversion” rate varies between types of store: it could be around 20% in some department stores but reach almost 100% in a grocery. And within the same store the conversion rate will vary in different sections.

People say they leave shops empty-handed more often because they are “unable to decide” than because prices are too high, says Mr Bearse. Working out what turns customers off is not difficult, yet stores still struggle with these issues: goods out of stock, long queues at the checkouts and poor levels of service. Getting customers to try something is one of the best ways of getting them to buy, adds Mr Bearse. Deloitte found that customers using fitting rooms convert at a rate of 85% compared with 58% for those that do not do so.

Often a customer struggling to decide which of two items is best ends up not buying either. A third “decoy” item, which is not quite as good as the other two, can make the choice easier and more pleasurable, according to a new study using fMRI carried out by Akshay Rao, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. Happier customers are more likely to buy. Dr Rao believes the deliberate use of irrelevant alternatives should work in selling all sorts of goods and services, from cable TV to holidays.

A lack of price tags is another turn-off, although getting that right will become crucial with the increasing use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. These contain far more information than bar codes and can be scanned remotely. People have been predicting for years that they would shortly become ubiquitous; but, with costs continuing to fall, they eventually will. Tills will then become redundant, because everything shoppers put in their trolleys will be automatically detected and charged to their credit cards.

The basic mechanisms to do this are already in place. A store or loyalty card can be fitted with an RFID tag to identify customers on arrival. A device on the trolley could monitor everything placed in it, check with past spending patterns and nudge customers: “You have just passed the Oriels, which you usually buy here.”

Mind over matter

Technology will also begin to identify customers’ emotions. Dr Sharma’s software has the potential to analyze expressions, like smiles and grimaces, which are hard to fake. And although fMRI scanners presently need a crane to move, something that provides a similar result might one day be worn on your head. Researchers believe it is possible to correlate brain patterns with changes in electrical activity in the brain, which can be measured with electroencephalography (EEG) using electrodes placed on the scalp. Small EEG machines are already available, especially for computer gamers, which fit on the head.

The notion of shoppers wearing brain-scanning hats would be ridiculous if it were not so alarming. Privacy groups are already concerned about the rise of electronic surveillance that records what people do, let alone what they might be thinking. The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned that because RFID tags can be read at a distance by anyone with the necessary equipment they could create “privacy pollution”; being used to discover what is in not only someone’s shopping trolley, but also their cupboards.

To some degree shoppers would have to “buy in” to the process: a bit like having an account with an online retailer which comes with the explicit knowledge that your past purchases and browsing history will be monitored and used to pitch purchase suggestions. And if that makes shopping easier—especially if sweetened with discounts—then consumers might sign up to it. When Dr Sharma asks shoppers what they think about his video-monitoring he says most people do not mind.

But what if psychological selling is done stealthily? That way lies grave perils. It is the anger not of privacy groups that retailers should fear, but of customers at being manipulated from behind the scenes.

There have been backlashes before: “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard, an American journalist, caused a sensation when it was first published in 1957 by revealing physiological techniques used by advertisers, including subliminal messages. It is what got Dr Spangenberg interested in the subject. He thinks shopping science has limits. “I don’t think you are going to be able to make someone buy a car or a computer that they don’t need,” he says. “But you might persuade them to choose one model instead of another. And importantly, they wouldn’t know it.” But if they did realize psychological methods were being used to influence their choice, “the counteraction can be so huge it can put someone off buying anything at all,” he adds.

Which is probably why at the end of this shopping trip there is not much in the trolley. At least the temptations at the checkout are easy to avoid: a few celebrity magazines and bags of sweets at the eye-level of children. But that will change too.

Barry Salzman, the chief executive of YCD Multimedia in New York, has big plans for the area around a cash till. He is using digital video screens displaying ads that relate to what someone is buying and which can also be linked with facial-recognition software to refine the displays according to the customer’s age or sex. His system is already being used in Aroma Espresso Bars in America to present, say, an advert for a chocolate croissant to someone buying only a cappuccino.

 Compiled in Editorial Board of Retailiran

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