The Urge to Splurge

Putty-colored mannequins and quaint window displays are so 1950s. Today's retail stores map out the shopping experience with a precision that starts the moment you walk through those double glass doors.

Can't help but reach for one of those V-neck sweaters so neatly stacked in the middle of The Gap? It may be the work of a savvy retail consultant like Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of Envirosell and author of the book Why We Buy.

PT investigates how retailers nudge you toward that cash register.

First Impressions

The Landing Strip

The first 10 feet inside a store are the "transition zone." Because most shoppers walk at a brisk clip from the parking lot, store designers seek to slow the shopper down, using a table of clothing, a sign or perhaps a salesperson "greeter" as a speed bump. Few retailers put important merchandise next to the entrance because most shoppers aren't yet in browsing mode.

Sweetest Spot

Most shoppers turn right, probably because most are right-handed. The right-hand thoroughfare attracts the highest traffic anywhere in the store. It is the perfect location for high-profit merchandise.

Look Here

Signs with just two or three words work best. At most, a sign registers for all of two seconds with a shopper.

The Hunt

Too Perfect

Many shoppers shy away from mussing those expertly folded and stacked garments. So today's salespeople are trained to leave a few items unfolded, encouraging shoppers to look and touch.

Bum Rush

Nothing sends a female shopper running for the exit like the dreaded "butt brush." While studying the New York City Bloomingdale's, Underhill discovered a jostle from behind in a narrow aisle ruins the shopping experience for women. Today's department stores know that middle-aged women are their best customers and opt for wide aisles.

Hands Free

Stores that provide a basket or bag to hold potential purchases—such as Old Navy and H&M—sell more merchandise than those that don't.

Selling the Romance

Victoria's Secret uses orchestral music to create a highbrow mood, says Rick Barrick, a vice president at DMX music, a firm that provides store soundtracks. The intended effect: "You're doing a classic, romantic thing buying lingerie there."

Reflections of Vanity

The Cosmetics Connection

Makeup booths pop up in every corner of department stores because cosmetics are an impulse buy, at least for adult women.

Narcissistic Tendencies

"Shoppers tend to speed walk," says RoxAnna Sway, editor-in-chief of Display and Design Ideas magazine. Mirrors extend shopping trips because most people like to check out their hair as much as they do the clothes.

In The Genes?

Some 25 percent of women purchase jeans after trying them on, while nearly 70 percent of men do.

Mixed Message

Customers love the ubiquitous free gifts designed to lure buyers to the cosmetics counter. But a study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found free gifts leave customers with a lower opinion of the merchandise they did pay for.

Youth Gone Wild

Pack Mentalities

Girls who shop in packs tend to buy more—feeding, perhaps, off one another's impulsivity—than teens who shop alone. The presence of family members squelches the urge to buy, according to a study.

Teen Beat

Today's stores have ramped up their effort to attract the younger shopper with loud dance tunes, extreme lighting, and music videos. Teenage girls tend to avoid department stores.

Left Behind

Girls with poor body images are more likely to buy their clothes on the Internet.

Where The Girls Are

Teen boys also like to hang out at shopping centers. But they are more interested in the girls than in the merchandise.

Sight Lines

On Stage

Spotlighting merchandise increases sales, studies show.

Zoning Out

Why so few windows in department stores? Like casino architects, store designers traditionally avoid reminding customers of the time of day. However, a different trend has emerged, says Ed Calabrese of Mancini Duffy Architectural Design in New York. Big stores today use natural light in the form of windows and especially skylights.

Footing The Bill

A Perfect Pair

The ideal location for cosmetics? Across from the shoe department. Waiting for their size, shoppers are a captive audience.

Missed Market

Underhill charges that both shoe companies and retailers don't cater to their biggest market for sneakers: seniors. Innovative athletic shoewear is targeted at the young, but the elderly also want rubber soles and tend to have more cash to spend.

Sweet Talk

Hello! Welcome to...

Many retailers instruct employees to greet shoppers within six seconds of entering the store. The practice deters shoplifters.

Rats In A Maze

Perky salesclerks can be annoying, but studies show their attention increases the likelihood of a sale. Some stores, like Diesel jeans, deliberately baffle shoppers with their displays so they have no choice but to ask for help, says Underhill. "Smart retailers are always trying to get their employees to talk to customers," he says.

Guilt Trip

Many shoppers feel guilty if they receive help from a clerk but don't buy anything, according to one study.

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