In the past, I’ve written several times about the insidious power of marketing. In 2007, I shared a guest post from Malcolm Gladwell on the same subject. My thesis is this: A lot of people like to believe they’re immune to advertising and marketing; a lot of people are wrong. In fact, I suspect (although I have no hard evidence) that those who are most adamant that marketing doesn’t affect them are probably the most susceptible to it.

But it’s not just advertising on television and in print that influence us. Increasingly, stores and companies are using the science of persuasion to exert influence over shoppers. Last week, USA Today published an interesting piece about how retailers study and test us to maximize profit.

Shoppers are like laboratory rats these days. From the time shoppers walk into stores, their footsteps, eye movements, choices and reactions to discounts are often closely monitored. With this analysis, stores can determine with startling accuracy whether changes such as remodeled stores, specific deals and more salespeople will make people spend more.


Analysis of shoppers ranges from mundane methods, such as counting the number of teens who walk in after school, to the high-tech, such as digital signs with cameras that can detect where people’s eyes move and direct promotions to that part of the screen. By calculating who is shopping when and which demographic groups are buying, stores can target them with the promotions that are more likely to resonate.

While many people (and I’m one of them) might resent being subtly manipulated to buy more, retailers are convinced that their methods actually help consumers. How? By steering them to buy the things that they really want. I’d rather discover that on my own, though, instead of being manipulated into a purchase.

Note: One of the authors cited in the USA Today article, Charles Duhigg of The Power of Habit, has offered to write a guest post for GRS. If things work out, we should see that by the end of the month.

All of this reminds me of the book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill [my review]. The book explains why supermarkets block the aisles with big displays, and gives tips on how the average shopper can spend less. (Quick tips: Don’t use a cart or a basket, don’t touch things, make a list and stick to it.)

As for me, there are two things that I’ve found have most reduced how much I spend on shopping. First, I do my best to avoid advertising. Second, I stay out of stores. (And that includes on-line stores like Amazon.) I know myself. And I know that the best way to keep from spending is to avoid temptation in the first place. Besides, if I stay out of the stores, the marketers have less of a chance to exercise their powers of persuasion over me!

[USA Today: How retailers study and test us to maximize profit]

J.D.’s note: As promised, I intend to begin publishing 2-3 additional “afternoon posts” like this every week. I used to do these all the time, but have been out of the habit over the past couple of years. I enjoy sharing PF news from around the web, and this is a chance for me to have a greater presence on GRS without feeling overwhelmed (and without overwhelming the readers). No guarantees, but I think this is a sustainable goal.