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A Rite of Spring

The warm weather invariably presents its own special inducement to go shopping. But the experience is heavily influenced by clever marketing ploys intended to manipulate our psychological needs. Two professors at Rutgers–Camden, Maureen Morrin and Lisa Zeidner, go to the mall together to observe the relentless push to buy, buy, buy.
By Lisa Zeidner

woman in illustration
Illustration by James Bennett

If you want to know whether food tastes worse when served on a paper plate, your go-to person is Maureen Morrin, a professor at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. She can also tell you whether smelling buttered popcorn helps you to remember a movie theater trailer, and whether you’ll perceive a scented pencil as superior to a plain old Number Two. Morrin studies consumer behavior, in particular the way sensory elements influence buying patterns. She specializes in smell, but also touch, which—for those of you who don’t read periodicals like the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics—involves a “haptic cue.”

To get a sense of how crucial such research is to retailers, I met Morrin at the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The 1961 mall—the first enclosed mall on the East Coast—had begun to sorely show its age and recently underwent a big renovation. Morrin gazed at a spiffy new waterfall and soaring atrium, the acres of shiny white marble tiles, with all of the intensity and curiosity of a birdwatcher at a marsh.

“Look at all this natural light!” she exclaims. “Lots of natural light puts you in a good mood. All the white perks you up. They were smart not to clutter things up with displays.” When we perceive more space around us, she explains, we tend to feel more powerful—and feeling powerful makes us want to buy luxury items. So, too, does the piped-in classical music—“even if it’s classical Muzak. They did a nice job, don’t you think?”

Actually, I don’t think. I confess my antipathy toward the culture of the shopping mall as a Six Flags-style entertainment venue. If I want gorgeous retail, with breathtaking floral bouquets or diaphanous scarves artfully displayed, I go to a farmer’s market. Or Italy. If I want leggings, or a toaster oven, I comparison shop online and then buy where the price is best. Furthermore, I don’t happen to need a photo package of my kid all gussied up to pose with a life-sized Easter bunny—a lot of the mall’s business on this crisp Monday morning. Morrin informs me that mall shopping “has a real social component. You notice most people here have a baby, or a boyfriend, or a parent.” She guesses I’m more likely to be a lone shopper—stalking the product like prey. Bingo. “You need to know what you’re after to do that, though,” Morrin warns—and many shoppers don’t have a clue. Which is why retailers work so hard to influence their choices.

Lisa Zeidner and Maureen Morrin
Author Lisa Zeidner (left) with fellow Rutgers–Camden professor Maureen Morrin. Photography by Benoit Cortet

Morrin gives me a primer in reading store displays and entrances. “Stores always put a barrier up when you walk in,” she says. “It’s called the ‘transition zone’—they want to slow you down.” At the Coach store, three gargantuan handbags occupy the windows, and another lone bag stops you dead in your tracks as you enter. “We call that the ‘product as hero’: ‘Ta-da! Here’s the product!’” At Macy’s, on the other hand, the entrance is a tangle of perfume and makeup displays—“the highest margin area per square foot, so department stores always allocate a lot of space for it.” Why are those areas always black and shiny? Because, metaphorically, “black implies that the products will help you be sexy, sultry, unconstrained. People associate black with lack of caution.” And also, of course, with those magic retail words: high end.

A slight frown from Morrin: “It smells a little musty here. Macy’s could use a smell person.”
To show me how retailers are now using smell and music, she brings me to Abercrombie & Fitch. The store’s black shutters in front (more sexy black!) “communicate a secret feel—‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ The lights are low, the music very loud. The store has a very strong proprietary scent that you smell as soon as you come in the door.” That smell—floral to the point of funereal—almost makes me want to gag. But then, we’re probably not the target demographic for skin-tight short shorts.

She compared the tangle of pink and lacy objects at the front of Victoria’s Secret—“It looks like a carnival, doesn’t it?”—to the classier presentation at Banana Republic. “Look at the Grecian columns. Look at the wooden hangers. Things are in perfect order. It’s a bit OCD-ish. You’re almost afraid to touch. There’s also less clothing; it’s less packed.” People are drawn to displays that offer a lot of variety—but ironically, market research has proven that “too much merchandise makes it hard to choose. In Banana Republic, there are two shirts and a skirt on a table. They’re helping you narrow down.” Similarly, Kids Foot Locker displays one pair of sneakers at the entrance in a couple of colors—“don’t get overwhelmed. Just pick one for your kid.”

Morrin’s research often involves two camps of shoppers: the prudent buyer, who comes to buy a specific item, and, the holy grail for retailers, the impulse buyer. Obviously, it’s the impulse buyer you want to snare—and not just to grab the candy bar at the grocery store checkout counter. At Costco, for instance, “people have come to trust Costco to have the best value for the best price,” but much of the company’s profits are in, paradoxically, big-ticket impulse buys—“that $3,000 big-screen TV you didn’t know you needed until you laid eyes on it.”

Retailers depend more and more on research like Morrin’s. “Companies are collecting tons of data, but they’re not all adept at mining it.” Because the career opportunities now are in such “big data,” the Camden business school is developing a master of science degree in business analytics.

Although Morrin used to work in advertising and branding, she prefers the freedom of academic research. There, she can pursue questions that interest her and make some startling discoveries. For instance, who could have predicted that Anglo Canadians and French Canadians respond in opposite ways to warm versus cool colors, as she showed in the study “Colors and Cultures: Exploring the Effects of Mall Décor on Consumer Perceptions”? Or that people who are sensitive to touch are less likely to think water tastes worse from a paper cup, as she demonstrated in “Does Touch Affect Taste? The Perceptual Transfer of Product Container Haptic Cues”? Morrin says: “That really surprised us.”

I argue that I would never buy more because someone squirted around a minty smell (mint is clean, which can make you feel morally cleansed and thus makes you more eager to plunk down bucks). I’d call my own shopping style “bottom feeder”—I like buying high-quality items on sale at places like TJ Maxx at a price somewhere around 70 percent off retail. Morrin mostly shops big-box discount, too, and confesses to being a huge Costco fan. I explain why I eschew buying gallon jugs of mayonnaise at Costco, and we chat a bit about Trader Joe’s, which she praises because “it has carved out a niche. They don’t have a big variety, but it’s intentional. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

Now we’ve hit on my weakness, the area where retailers can pry open my wallet for impulse buys: luscious cheeses and chocolates and cakes, artfully displayed. No one can make me want $100 jeans, but I will pay $25 a pound for imported triple-crème cheese. As I sing the praises of Wegmans—our local grocery store where the shaved Reggiano Parmesan is lovely but where, I claim, the megapacks of toilet paper are as cheap as they are at Target—she nails me as a shopper.

“On the one hand,” she says, “you want a bargain; on the other hand, you want a pleasant shopping experience—value with sensory input.” She also accuses me of having “what is called a metacognitive approach—you’re very aware of how merchandisers are trying to manipulate you.”

Guilty as charged. It’s why Banana Republic’s careful arrangement of the Three Must-Have Knits of the Season doesn’t sway me: I already have a black shirt and a white shirt. If I’m buying a colored shirt, who decided it must be neon green?

As we walk past a store window, I ask Morrin why the mannequins have no heads. “Good question!” Morrin stares intently at the beheaded models. Maybe it could be her next research project. “That might make for an excellent study! I’d love to look into that!” •

Lisa Zeidner directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing in the Department of English at Rutgers–Camden. Her fifth novel, Love Bomb, is forthcoming.