They call it ‘consumer behaviour’ at business schools, but we call it shopping. Should we have Professors of Shopping to help us understand the psychological processes involved in this common (almost daily) activity? Could there be a science of shopping to help shops maximise their profit?

Certainly many myths surround the topic. Take the top three conspiracy theories for supermarket layout. First, the two staples, bread and milk, are furthest apart to keep you walking the aisles and then inevitably engage in impulse buying en route. No, they are in different places mainly for temperature reasons.

Second, supermarketers deliberately try to disorientate you by moving the stuff around. No they don’t, because relocating goods really annoys punters and sales drop if they do this regularly. Sure, changes are made, but the aim is to accommodate new stock or eliminate poorly selling ranges.

Third, they pile up big fruits and vegetables at the front of the shop to encourage you to take a trolley which you feel compelled to fill. No, shopping trolley decisions are made before you enter the store.

But there are people watching and measuring behaviour in all stores trying to understand consumer behaviour. There are three methods of collecting shopping science data: First, a careful examination of stock, cash, and sales. That’s quite simple and reliable. Loyalty cards make it easier. These can provide good data on consistency of time and exact details of your purchases. It can also examine associations, i.e. those who buy pesto are more likely to buy balsamic vinegar. Those who buy own-brand also buy Bogoffs (Buy-one-get-one-free).

This data tells us about behaviour but it can’t inform us about motives, which we have to infer. Or, if we believe people both will (and can) tell us about their real (conscious and unconscious) motives, we could interview them. Or they can be stopped before they enter and after they leave shops (noting differences between shopping intentions and actual purchases) or in ubiquitous focus groups or even on the phone.

Then we can watch people shop. Through security cameras or using anthropologically trained observers, you can describe how people move through stores: what seems to slow them down or attract them to particular areas while shunning others and why they appear to inspect physically some produce and not others.

Retailers are interested in particular questions: the conversion rate (the number of people entering stores who actually purchase anything); the interception rate (the number of customers who interact with staff members); how long people actually spend in a store and how long they have to wait for service, especially paying.

Time spent in a store is the single best predictor of how much is spent, so slowing people down is a good thing. But it is not a good idea to slow them down with poor signage and blocked aisles. Mirrors slow people down, intriguing displays do likewise. Equally, having to wait is the single best predictor of dissatisfaction, so it pays to ensure waiting is at a minimum.

Studies show many pretty obvious things. Signage is very important; people like to sit down in shops; music and smells can affect moods and thence purchases. People need ways of easily carrying things and they tend to have habitual ways of moving around the store.

But what about individual differences? Yes, there are, of course, shopper types: experiential and adventure shoppers; shopaholics and shopaphobics; economic shoppers and price-insensitive Johnnies; bargain hunters and sociable shoppers.

And are there demographic differences? Naturally shoppers have been classified by age, sex, and class. And this is where the fanciful speculation starts. Observers notice, people self-report, and loyalty card information indicate sex-differences.

Females spend more time shopping than men. They seem to be more aware, inquisitive and patient in shops. Men, it seems, move faster, look less, and are less inclined to ask questions. Men seem to worry less about the price and seem more anxious to get out of the store.

Men inhibit women shoppers. Women accompanied by men spend half the time than if accompanied by other women. Women advise, consult, talk, suggest to each other…men get on with it.

Women, some socio-biologically inclined researchers note, find shopping relaxing and rejuvenating. But men are hunter-gatherers. They need a clear objective (i.e. a list) and to know precisely what brand, colour, size and style. Where to go, how long to stay, etc. Men go for a quick kill.

And then there are the pathologies associated with shopping addictions and compulsions, including shoplifting. There seem to be a disproportionate number of women suffering from these. People shop to confirm their identity (you are what you wear); to find external symbols of missing internal needs; to restore a feeling of group belonging.

The thesis is developed further with the concept of retail therapy. The shopper really is a profoundly unhappy person trying to ‘buy relief’ in big stores.

So it seems we may need Professors of Shopping Science to explain to us why we feel, act, and think so oddly in shops.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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