What’s really going on inside your customer’s head? That’s the question that drives the work of Roger Dooley, an Austin-based marketing consultant, blogger, author and all-around curious mind about the role our brains play in purchasing behavior and decision-making. It’s a fascinating new field that might hold as many answers as it does questions. Business writer Erin McDermott recently spoke with Dooley about engaging shoppers’ senses, the power of the smell of a muffin, and why the sound of a price matters.
EM: A customer walks into a retail shop. What’s happening inside the brain in terms of their senses that a small business owner should consider about their presentation?
RD: We may not know exactly what’s going on, but two things are quite certain. First, multiple senses are engaged. We tend to focus on the visual aspects of a store, but smell and sound come into play as well. Touch and taste are less engaged at the point of entry, though I’m reminded of the restaurant Chili’s where, to enter, you grasp a door handle shaped like—of course—a pepper. Second, it’s very likely that a snap judgment takes place within milliseconds. The customer hasn’t studied any displays, read signs, etc., but forms an immediate emotional impression. We know this takes place on websites, and the subsequent experience is shaped by that unthinking first impression.
EM: In your book Brainfluence, you write about how scent is often overlooked as a factor in selling products and creating an atmosphere in stores. Why are smells—good and bad—so compelling for consumers? Are there surprises in what actually draws customers?
RD: The olfactory pathway to our brain is fast and unfiltered, and smells are capable of producing emotional responses and triggering memories. This is why stores with bakeries ensure the smell wafts through the store interior. The smell of baking bread will get us salivating for a slice, and for many of us may trigger the memory of bread baking in our childhood. Bad smells have the opposite effect—they may trigger emotions like disgust, hardly the sort of encouragement you want to provide shoppers.
EM: Recently, you’ve written about how prices are displayed—even decimal symbols and commas make a difference in customers’ minds, as one new study reports. Are there easy steps small business owners can take to adopt to improve perceptions about pricing?
RD: For in-person shoppers, bold, colorful tags or signs on some items suggest that the item is a bargain. That is, if it looks like a sale, it probably is a sale. Some research shows that prices that appear precise—$498.22—are more credible than rounded ones—$500.00. Working in the opposite direction is that customers convert prices to spoken syllables in their brain, so a more complex price with decimals seems a bit larger than a similar number with fewer syllables. I always recommend testing various approaches to see what works best in a particular situation.
EM: Most merchants at some point have had to deal with an irate customer, through angry phone calls or nasty online comments on a company website, for example. Is there a psychological approach that’s best in effectively defusing a hostile situation?
RD: The simplest solution is apparently one of the best: saying “sorry.” One set of experiments showed that rude behavior by one individual caused an increase in the probability of retaliatory theft by another individual who was the victim of the rudeness. When the first person apologized immediately after the behavior, the retaliation effect disappeared. In general, you won’t convince an unhappy customer that the problem was their fault, though some merchants try. It’s better to apologize quickly and solve the problem.
EM: Your work focuses on what’s happening inside the buyer’s minds. As a consumer yourself, how does what you’ve studied affect your own shopping behavior? How does your family respond when they’re out shopping with you?
RD: Like most people, I—incorrectly—assume that I’m totally rational in my shopping behavior and would never be influenced by all these non-conscious effects! Seriously, I don’t worry too much about it. I do pay attention to marketing techniques that businesses use and admire those firms that do things well. I now shop often at a Texas supermarket chain, HEB. There’s research that shows a small food sample improves your attitude, even about unrelated things. In one experiment, people rated their home television better if they had been given a food sample. Whether HEB knows about that research or just wants to create a fun store environment, I’m not sure, but they have many more sampling stations than their competition. Sushi, muffins, cheese, wine, and even freshly cooked food items are spread around the store, though most heavily near the entrance. Of course, at some times of day there are no samples. My disappointment when I’ve missed the tasty morsels suggests that those samples are part of why I prefer that store.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.