There are several things you need to be aware of when shopping. Let's take a look...
1. Realise and accept that you will have an instinctive reaction to every situation
The initial reaction to any incoming physiological stimuli is from the limbic system, a part of the brain solely concerned with fight, flight or fornication. Initially, we will adopt a physiological state that prepares us for one of those three courses of action. A fourth physiological reaction is also possible, and that is freeze; standing absolutely motionless while the situation changes or our brain uses the added time to come up with a course of action.
Readiness to fight, flee, fornicate freeze can all be witnessed in the aisles of the supermarket. Taking each one in turn, readiness to fight can be seen at the deli counter, when shoppers take a number and wait for it to appear; just watch the outraged reactions of patiently queuing shoppers when they think somebody has jumped the queue, a behaviour that is a sanitised version of how we behaved thousands of years ago.
In terms of fleeing, we’re only prepared to invest a certain amount of time and effort in buying a product. We can sometimes be seen diligently trying to make a purchase, comparing products, reading packs and perusing on-shelf literature. All of a sudden, often caused by other shoppers approaching, we will put the products down and stride swiftly out of the aisle empty handed - we literally give up and run away.
The final ‘f’ refers to freezing, and while observing shoppers for professional reasons, I have seen it on a number of occasions. When a shopper drops a jar or bottle in an aisle, on most occasions, they will stand absolutely motionless for a moment or two.
Responses to each of the four ‘f’ situations are initially purely reactive. Don’t worry that your brain is directing your body to do things without your cognitive permission but recognise how and when retailers and brands use techniques specifically to cause your limbic systems to trigger a physiological reaction. Then you can use your higher brain to take control, influence the result and create a more beneficial outcome.
2. Be aware that you may be influenced differently depending on your gender
Men and women can be swayed purely according to our evolutionary gender roles, and it’s useful to bear these in mind. Modern women can still behave like matriarchal gatherers when travelling down the aisles, collecting seeds, vegetables and berries for their family groups. In the context of shopping, this means that women have developed a wider peripheral vision and tend to see many more temptations than their male counterparts.
A particular problem for female shoppers is that they are wired to see more things, useful when gathering nuts and berries while keeping an eye on the children. But faced with so many temptations in the supermarket, it’s a much harder feat to resist all of them.
When it comes to being smarter shoppers, women in particular need to understand that they will be tempted and will need to think twice. ‘Do I really need that box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts?’ In your early forays into smarter shopping, you may find the process somewhat exhaustive and tedious, but rest assured it quickly becomes second nature.
On the other hand, men in the supermarket tend to behave like ancient hunters, darting around the shop purposefully, their missions clear and their goals precise. The trouble with this apparently efficient behaviour is that men tend to be just too focussed: If tasked to buy flour that’s what we’ll do. Whether there are different pack sizes at different prices is just distraction – hunter needs flour, hunter gets flour. Although an over simplification, this example does illustrate the male tendency to treat shopping as a goal oriented hunt and uncovers a significant shopper limitation.
Because men are so intent on reaching their goal, completing a task and killing their mammoth, they often overlook important details. The man may return to the family home with the freshly slain bag of flour, but was it the best value and is it the right size for the needs of the family? When it comes to smarter shopping, men need to slow down, wake up and smell the flours! In other words, for men to be smarter shoppers, you need to consider the choices in connection with your needs at that time.
3. Accept that only some aspects of your shopping behaviour can be quickly and easily improved
Humans are much better at developing technological solutions to problems than we are at using that technology. As a result, technological advances are happening much faster than we can evolutionarily keep up with. We have created this wonderful, technologically advanced structure called the supermarket but are actually not that well equipped to get the most out of it.
By recognising this fact we will be at a distinct advantage. Simply by accepting that there are only certain aspects of supermarket shopping activity that can be quickly and easily refined is a positive step forwards. As smarter shoppers we can recognise that we are only partially able to handle the supermarket. But, importantly, we can learn to recognise the aspects we can and can’t control and understand what could lead to imprudent purchase decisions.
4. Learn to recognise your conditioned behaviours
The key techniques that we use to minimise the mental effort involved in shopping, single scripted behaviours and chunking are habitual behaviours and at this stage in your shopping efficiency are probably more negative than positive.
Our brains use both single scripting and chunking to save the short term working memory from overload. To explain both behaviours by way of example: When a smoker first buys 20 cigarettes, they do so consciously and have to think about each component of the behaviour. However, as the days, months and years go by, they are able to chunk various aspects of the behaviour into a single action. Opening the door of the tobacconists with the right hand leads instinctively to allowing that hand to continue to the back pocket to retrieve the money. With money in hand, they arrive at the counter and almost without any awareness, ask for 20 of their preferred brand, hand over the money, collect any change and turn to leave the store. After leaving, they typically light up and life goes on.
The point is that over time, each of the actions involved in buying 20 cigarettes first get chunked into groups of behaviours and then eventually chunked into a single action, caused by a single trigger such as seeing the tobacco store on the way to work each morning. Finally, these chunked behaviours all meld into one and this is what is known as a single scripted behaviour. The issue here is that because a group of actions become a single behaviour, as a smarter shopper you have to be alert to the fact that often you will be blissfully unaware of subtle alterations to your surroundings. In the case of buying 20 cigarettes, if it is a true single scripted behaviour, then our shopper wouldn’t be aware of any in-store POS, special offers or alternative, newly launched products.
Brands and retailers will endeavour to break single scripted behaviours to communicate with you. Sometimes they do this unintentionally, for example, when a particular brand is out of stock. Upon being told this, you have to re-engage with the store and once again become aware of your surroundings.
To develop from shopping on autopilot to smarter shopping you need to recognise your own single scripted shopping behaviours; often, there is nothing wrong with these behaviours, providing that the purchased product is the best to meet your particular needs. If you buy certain things by way of single scripted behaviours, then every once in a while interrupt the script yourself and check that you aren’t missing a better alternative. An example of how you can interrupt your own single scripts could be going to a different supermarket every now and again, just to ‘weigh up the competition’. Even small alterations to your behaviour can have dramatic effects; when you enter the supermarket to do a big shop, you could walk all the way to the far end of the store with your trolley empty and begin shopping from there. This puts the entire store in a different perspective and significantly reduces instances of single scripted and chunked behaviour purchases.
Although single scripted behaviours are often efficient and beneficial, as a smarter shopper you should sense-check them once in a while.
5. Realise that emotions drive your purchasing decisions
Almost all products are bought primarily based on ‘emotional reasons’. If I asked you the colour of the car that was directly in front of you last time you drove into the supermarket car park, you’d probably struggle to remember. However, if for some reason there was an emotional reason to remember that particular vehicle, then you would be able to do so. You may have run into it, it may have stopped suddenly and surprised you or perhaps you just remember the driver. That’s the emotional link needed to consign that vehicle to your long term memory.
We are driven by emotion and there’s no more powerful driving force. Luckily, as we’ll discuss later, we can cognitively manage our emotions via the cerebral cortex in our higher brain. If you’re truly committed to becoming a smarter shopper, you have to get emotional about the subject; that’s the only way you’ll be able to understand and get to grips with the emotions that constantly shape your decisions.
Recognise how brands and retailers attract your attention by triggering specific emotional responses. Only when we realise how we’re being targeted can we start to defend against these messages and our automatic responses to incoming stimuli impact on pretty much every decision we make.
6. Understand the power of pride, shame and guilt over your shopping behaviour
We possess two different types of emotions: Universal, primary ones concerned with fight, flight or procreate, and a number of more modern, socially and culturally aligned emotions that lead to and manifest as feelings. Our universal emotions are managed by our limbic systems and their main aim is to keep us alive and ensure the continued existence of the human race. Our social emotions are more related to how we perceive we are seen by others.
When it comes to smarter shopping, the influencing power of social emotions and feelings is significantly greater than that of the universal ones. It’s useful to pay attention to three particular feelings you may get while supermarket shopping: pride, shame and guilt.
We buy many products to make us feel proud; lots of gifts are bought partly because the buyer wants to feel pride when giving it to a recipient. Another equally powerful social emotion is shame. An example of shame related marketing can be seen in the skincare aisle, with numerous products promising to get rid of unwanted this and unsightly that. They are making the shopper ashamed that they need to get rid of their own this or that. The third particularly effective social emotion is guilt. This often manifests itself when people are buying for their loved ones, children or pets. The image of a sad faced dog on a premium pet food can instantly turn the strictest pet owner into a guilt ridden individual whose only road to redemption is by purchasing a better pet food for their faithful companion.
Try to cut down on how much you are swayed by emotions, particularly social feelings, when in the supermarket. One technique that can help is to identify and write on your shopping list the primary purpose of the product you’re buying, which is often different from the reason for buying it. Instead of rationalising that you are buying a washing powder because it contains a new, biologically advanced formula, consider that the primary reason to buy that washing powder is because you want you and your family to be dressed in clothes that look clean and smell nice. A key shopper need if you want to wash ‘whiter than white’ may be that a powder contains optical brighteners that make white clothes look less yellow.
7. Rise above the crowd mentality of other shoppers
A key part of human physiology is concerned with us communicating our feelings non-verbally, which can lead changes in the moods and feelings of other shoppers in the vicinity. To recap on the evolutionary background, our ancestors were social creatures who preferred to exist in groups. They discovered that their chances of survival were greater if they all looked out for each other. However, it wasn’t easy to look out for danger coming from any direction, so we developed a way of recognising and responding to the facial expressions of others. This way we could look out for danger in one direction and be mindful of the facial expressions of those looking in other directions by using peripheral vision.
We’ve retained that same innate ability; the sight and sound of unruly children in an aisle can cause shoppers nearby to express disgust and anger using their faces. This can also spread to other shoppers. Just observe how a queue of shoppers start a chain reaction of facial expressions when someone at the front of the line forgets their PIN or isn’t ready to pay for their goods.
When it comes to functioning as a smarter shopper, it’s a case of knowing your mind, using your brain and rising above the crowd mentality of many other shoppers. If you catch yourself becoming frustrated, just check what the cause is: if it’s a response to the anger of others, rise above it and smile. Once you get proficient at recognising facial expressions and subsequent emotions and feelings, you will be able to express the emotions that you want, which in turn can positively influence others. This can help you to stay focussed and prevent you falling into a trance which leads to less beneficial purchase decisions being made.
We can also be influenced by other people’s facial expressions. Our brains are hard wired to exist in social groups and as a result we are constantly weighing up others in our vicinity and checking the dynamics and harmony of the group. As a form of long distance communications and a means of spotting potential threats and mates, we are able to recognise and respond to facial expressions more than any language based communications, such as in-store messaging or promotional information. Long before we were able to read, write or even talk, we communicated by way of facial expressions and this still holds true today.
We need to understand that the presence of other shoppers can influence our own in-store perceptions and behaviours. A store full of happy shoppers makes you feel happy. Conversely, lots of angry shoppers in the same checkout queue can have an adverse impact on your mental state. Being surrounded by hoards of supermarket shoppers who are behaving irrationally and making impulsive and rash purchasing decisions can cause you to behave in the same way and in an exaggerated manner. To combat this lemming like mentality, you need to stay focussed and mission oriented. Don’t get caught up in any mass behaviour that means you deviate from your goal.
To summarise the brain related characteristic of behaving differently in a crowd, remember you are an individual, not a number. Behave as you do when you’re away from the grocery store, stay in touch and in control of your mental state as much as possible.