EC is off its trolley to stop traffic jams in the aisles

The EC should not be allowed to ban two-for-one offers. For weak-willed customers, falling victim to manipulative retailers is what makes shopping fun, says Iain Murray

Back in the Sixties when the world was young, there was a silly book called The Hidden Persuaders. It purported to show how the advertising industry used powerful and sinister techniques such as subliminal jiggery-pokery to manipulate public behaviour without the public realising what was being done.

Cometh the new millennium, cometh the sequel. The Manipulators: Unmasking the Hidden Persuaders by Jeffrey Robinson sets out to show how unwitting consumers are at the mercy of darkly scheming retailers. “Making money is the nature of the exercise,” he explains for the benefit of those who might put it all down to sheer sadism. “Manipulative techniques are deliberately applied to trigger emotional responses to products and services.”

For example, the end of a supermarket aisle is a “hot spot” used by retailers to display their latest offers and promotions. Research has shown that shoppers slow down at the end of an aisle (for if they were to accelerate into an ever shortening space they would certainly collide with something, possibly a wall). As they slow down they enter “browse mode”. For the technically-minded, Jasmine Montgomery, director of design company Fitch, explains that coming to the end of an aisle involves a 90-degree turn during which shoppers “reorient themselves again”.

Hot spots are just one of the tricks. Others include – hold on to your hat – grouping products together by themes (suits, shirts and ties, for example); colour (red to speed up shoppers, greys to slow them down); music (fashion stores play tunes associated with a night out); scents (peppermint to keep the punters alert, citrus to uplift them); lighting (flattering in clothes shops to make customers think they look good); and traffic generation (cash desks, changing rooms, or lavatories sited at the back of the store to make people walk past other products).

The aim of these low tricks is to “make people buy things they don’t need”. And that, in this piping time of plenty and prosperity, is a grave offence. So grave, in fact, that the European Commission (EC), which has established over many years a reputation for knowing what people need (the Common Agricultural Policy, for example), is determined to stamp it out. The European Union plans to introduce a law banning companies from offering free gifts and two-for-one offers on the grounds that they encourage people to buy products they do not want.

What lies behind this meddlesome law making is, of course, the bureaucrats’ loathing of a free market. Nothing is more galling to the mind of the dirigiste than the prospect of people freely and openly exercising choice. Gullible, easily manipulated, unaware of what they want or need, let loose in a jungle haunted by predatory retailers, consumers cannot safely be left alone to make up their own minds.

Wants and needs are difficult concepts at the best of times. Moreover, the two are well known not to be mutually exclusive. For instance, there can be little doubt that EC commissioners want, and enjoy, munificent expense accounts and lavish lunches. But do they really need them? A shopper slowing down at the end of an aisle might spot out of the corner of her eye a special offer on chocolate and peanut butter waffles (“once bitten and you’re smitten”) and pop them into her trolley. Did she want them? Possibly. Did she need them? Certainly not. In which case should not their production be banned as superfluous? Or should they not at the very least be kept out of sight, lest weak-willed customers fall victim to temptation?

What is ignored in all this silliness about retail manipulation is that people enjoy shopping and relish the prospect of temptation. Or at any rate that half of the population which is female does. I am currently working on a book called “Men are from Milton Keynes, Women are from Virginia Water: The Sexes and Shopping” which lays bare the psychological differences between men and women which determine their behaviour in what Jasmine Montgomery calls the “multi-sensory shopping experience”.

Research has shown that men enter supermarkets with the aim of getting out again as quickly as possible. They carry, either in their heads or on paper, a short list of items they wish to buy. But it isn’t as easy as that. The things they want have been hidden. Blood pressure rising, the tormented male circles the store, cursing all in his way, until, the last elusive purchase tracked down, he heads for the exit, exulting in the prospect of the great and welcoming car park in much the way that a sailor greets landfall after a perilous and storm-tossed voyage.

Contrast that with the woman shopper. She enjoys the experience so much that she takes a friend along with her, perhaps her mother. So joyful is the experience that the two will often stand motionless, as if in a trance, in the middle of an aisle, heedless in their rapture of the traffic jam building around them. Not for them a 90 degree turn at the end of an aisle. Not when they can perform the manoeuvre several times half way down an aisle. Women want and need shopping, and to hell with those who wish to destroy their pleasure.

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