Just Relax, Then Buy More and Pay More For It
Kelli B. Grant / The Wall Street Journal
Close your eyes, relax, breathe deep—and swipe your credit card.
Retailers have long known that less-stressed shoppers are likely to browse longer, but now there’s evidence that they’ll also be more receptive to higher prices. A recent study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that relaxed shoppers were willing to pay up to 15% more for goods than less-relaxed ones.
After a few minutes of soothing music or a few sips of free cappuccino, your brain gets the message that there’s no reason to be on alert, says the study’s co-author Michel Tuan Pham, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.
The findings were consistent in a series of six experiments involving more than 670 participants. In one experiment that simulated an auction, relaxed participants bid about 11% higher for a digital camera than less-relaxed participants, whose bids were closer to the product’s estimated market price on online auction sites. The same effect was observed across a large variety of products in other studies.
The researchers theorize that relaxed consumers think about the value of products at a more abstract level. For example, in the bidding experiment, relaxed participants focused more on what the camera would enable them to do, such as collect memories. The less-relaxed participants focused more on the concrete features of the camera itself, such megapixels.
The findings help explain why high-end boutiques and luxury hotels often provide relaxing environments.
Now, more stores and even shopping malls are offering new soothing amenities and services. Chief in their marketing plans: trays of complimentary cocktails and finger food, private events before and after regular store hours, and cushy seating nooks with free Wi-Fi and flat screens that encourage shoppers to linger. Some stores are dabbling just for the next few months; others are aiming for a more relaxing experience year-round.
“It’s a subtle way to get you to buy more, and pay more for it,” says Jeff Green, owner of retail consulting firm Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix. Using emotional marketing tactics is one more way that retailers, are trying to wean shoppers off the big discounts of years past, Mr. Green adds.
Doug Wood, president and chief operating officer of Tommy Bahama, says he realized two years ago that the locations with the best holiday sales were those greeting shoppers with trays of complimentary mimosas and snacks from their attached restaurants. Last year all 13 restaurant-attached Tommy Bahamas offered food during the last two weeks of December. This year, they’ll have it every day starting in mid-November.
“Our shoppers come in more stressed than we’d like,” he says, adding that snacks in stores boost traffic to Tommy Bahama restaurants as well.
At minimum, the approach serves as a forced break.
“If I, as a retailer, can get you to sit for a bit, the chances of me selling you something are infinitely better,” says marketing consultant Paco Underhill, the author of “Why We Buy.” Samples can also secure a sale in places like Williams-Sonoma, which says stores ramp up tasting opportunities during the holidays.
Odds also improve, Mr. Underhill says, if there’s some place for a shopper to “park her ‘accessories,’ like a husband or boyfriend. That takes so much tension off the floor.”
With an eye to that, mall developer Westfield Group is rolling out cushy seating areas with couches and free Wi-Fi hotspots in the public areas in some of its 55 U.S. properties; flagship Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., will have them by Black Friday, says northeast regional marketing director Lisa Herrmann.
Department stores and boutiques are achieving a similar effect by adding in-store cafés, or breaking up a large store into small rooms. “They engineer it so that some are almost empty, on purpose,” says Jim Bieri, principal at retail real estate-consulting firm Stokas Bieri Real Estate in Detroit.
Another crowd-control technique increasingly popular during the holidays is hosting a private event for a small groups of shoppers outside normal store hours. Lines to get into toy store FAO Schwarz often stretch up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, but this year, in a partnership with MasterCard’s “Priceless New York,” the store will let a handful of shoppers get in two hours early each day in November and December. Nordstrom department stores have added more evening events for its Fashion Rewards members this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas to handle increased demand, says spokesman Colin Johnson.
Likewise for high-end fashion retailer Kate Spade: “We do see a nice sales lift from customer events,” says Kyle Andrew, senior vice president of global brand marketing. The brand hosts local events year round, but plans to add more this year—including a blowout New York event near Black Friday with colorfully festooned taxis bearing the Kate Spade logo to ferry attendees home—as a way to generate loyalty.
Guests sometimes get a discount of 20%, she says, but the allure for most is early access to new products and a chance to peruse gift-guide options.
For all their plans, retailers’ relaxation efforts may not soothe shoppers. All it takes is one stressful element—crowds, disorganized shelves, a pushy sales clerk—to snap people out of a relaxed state, Dr. Pham says.
“Getting shoppers to relax, and stay relaxed, in a holiday environment is going to be difficult,” he says.