As consumers, we know we need to avoid spending on the little things if we want to save for a big purchase down the road.
But then you see that little gizmo by the cash register and you stealthily swipe it into your pile of items the cashier rings up.
And who among us hasn't gone into Target for toothpaste and a greeting card for an upcoming birthday and emerged with an entire cart full of stuff we simply had to have and a receipt for $150?
(As a retailer, make sure you take advantage of impulse buying and offer small add-ons in a point-of-purchase display and after a customer places an item in their online shopping cart.)
Why do humans do this with money? Why do we buy and spend even when we know we shouldn’t?
And more importantly for you and your business, how can you understand what’s going on here and use it to your advantage?
Behavioral Finance and Economics at Work
Behavioral finance is an emerging field that seeks to combine what we know about human psychology and theories of economics and money to explain why people act irrationally when making financial decisions.
Mental and emotional blind spots get in the way of logical financial decision-making. Humans have many psychological — and often subconscious — impulses that drive behavior.
Behavioral finance is a subset of an older, more established field of study known as behavioral economics. Formally, behavioral economics looks at the impact of “psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions” of individuals.
You don’t need to be an expert in this area to take advantage of what we know from the pros who conduct research. And as a retailer, you want to take note.
You can supercharge your sales if you understand those psychological factors that drive people to act they way they do when making purchasing decisions. Here are a few ways that explain how.
Influence Your Customers With Extremes
Theories in behavioral economics like prospect theory and bounded rationality tell us that humans have a difficult time making choices in a vacuum. Adding context helps us decide what we want — and can influence the choices that we ultimately make.
In his book, The Last Mile, Dilip Soman recounts how he discovered that 3 in 4 people will choose the middle coffee cup size from a choice of small, medium, and large. This held true across a number of different vendors and companies — and even countries.
Even though absolute sizes of all the coffee cups varied, the majority of people consistently chose the middle option.
“We are influenced by extremes and tend to compromise with the middle option,” explain Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker in the 2016 Behavioral Economics Guide.
You can influence your customers by setting up bumper guards to drive them toward a middle-of-the-road option. And you can price all your products accordingly.
Here are some various strategies you can implement to guide customers to the item you want them to purchase, using other products and factors to do so:
- Offer the same product in various sizes.
- Offer similar products but with tiered features at various price points (the lowest-cost option providing the fewest features, and the highest-cost with the most bells and whistles)
- Make sure the product you want to sell is simple and easy to understand. Other items that are more complicated or require more effort to understand will drive customers to the simpler solution.
- Package your products to provide a basic, average, and above-average option. The basic offer should be as stripped-down as possible. The above-average option should feature more benefits than the customer needs. These extremes will help drive buyers to the middle option.
Reduce the Options
In the above strategy, customers are given three choices and the majority of people will gravitate toward the middle option as a way to compromise between two extremes. In this case, the options are helpful.
But add too many and people get overwhelmed. This is due to “analysis paralysis,” or what happens when we have so many options to choose from that we fail to make a decision at all.
It’s also what renowned American psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. When given too many options, we’re can’t analyze them all rationally. Overabundance leads to feelings of anxiety and even depression and loneliness.
Trying to increase sales by providing more options can actually cause the opposite and result in stressed-out, unhappy customers who look elsewhere for easier purchasing decisions.
To supercharge sales, reduce the number options. Yes, that may feel counterintuitive. But take these two examples from the restaurant scene in Boston:
The Gallows offers four burgers (and one veggie burger) and just one dessert on its dinner menu.
Customers don’t need to hem and haw about what choice they’ll make because the decision is easy. Or in the case of dessert at this particular establishment, the decision is made for them.
Mike and Patty’s is a sandwich shop that only does breakfast and lunch. They have 11 items on the menu for both meals, and that’s it.
Customers in the know don’t spend time deciding on their meal option. They choose the Fancy and Mike and Patty’s sells an insane amount of breakfast sandwiches.
Make Navigation (And Choosing) Simple
Of course, this isn’t necessarily an option for larger companies with big marketplaces. If this describes your situation, you can boost sales by reducing the amount of choices a customer needs to make.
There is clearly no lack of choice on Amazon. But the company provides a highly organized marketplace that allows you to search by department. Products are organized by category within the department, and then again by subcategory.
Amazon also curates custom suggestions for customers based on browsing history, past purchases, and preferences. If your company provides a multitude of products and you can’t reduce choices, help customers navigate the marketplace. Help them hone in on the items most relevant to them, and offer a personalized shopping experience with curated product recommendations.
Play Up the Loss, Not the Gain
Another psychological strategy to boost your sales involves taking advantage of humans’ strong aversion to loss. Loss aversion makes us loathe losing far more than we enjoying gaining.
It makes no logical sense. But as science journalist Shankar Vedantam explained on NPR’s Hidden Brain, “the desire to avoid losses is wired more strongly into the brain than the desire to achieve gains.”
Companies play on loss aversion to supercharge sales in a number of ways. One popular method: Offer a free, limited-time trial.
This creates a feeling of ownership that’s threatened when the trial ends. Customers who already commit to a trial are more likely to make a full purchase to avoid losing access to something they have.
Neil Patel of QuickSprout ran an experiment with his own products that does a good job of illustrating the loss aversion bias at work. He wanted to determine what drove more sales: a money-back guarantee or a free trial offer.
The money-back guarantee plays on our preference for gains. The money is already gone. The offer allows us to gain it back if we don’t like the product.
The free trial, however, played on our loss aversion. There is a risk of losing something we already have.
Patel’s sales results demonstrated how our aversion to loss is much more compelling than our desire to gain. With the money-back guarantee, he generated $20,976 in revenue during the experiment.
But with the free trial, he generated $24,428 in revenue.
You can also use loss aversion tactics to increase sales simply by including the right language in advertisements, copy, and information about products. Words like “won’t last” and “limited-time” drive people to take action immediately for fear of missing out.
Most of Groupon’s products and deals are positioned to trigger our loss aversion. Each deal is limited in quantity. The time the deal is offered is also limited, which boosts sales by encouraging customers to act now.
Using Samples to Trigger the Loss Aversion Bias
If your company sells physical products, you can achieve the same effect by offering samples of your product line.
Sephora’s sales associates happily help customers try samples of various products throughout the stores, from face creams to perfumes.
They’ll package tiny samples of products for customers, and send those samples home with printouts from the store’s informational kiosks.
Once the product is gone, the customer feels the sense of loss. That feeling, along with the printout from the store including product information, ratings, reviews, and instructions for use encourages the customer to return and make a purchase.
(Sephora also includes fully stocked makeup counters and application stations, where customers can sample products right there in store and even have sales associates give them a makeover.)
Subscription box company Birchbox runs a huge amount of their business around samples. Each month, the company sends subscribers a box of sample-sized products and goodies to try.
Birchbox also has an ecommerce store where customers — whether they subscribe to the monthly boxes or not — can purchase the full-size versions of the products they love.
And the samples work, encouraging customers who receive them to return to the ecommerce platform to buy more. Half (50%) of all monthly subscription box customers come to the site to buy full-size items.
The Atlantic ran a piece on the impact of samples on sales on various items, especially food products. They showed that sales of products like lipstick and mascara — some of the many products both Sephora and Birchbox sell — increased by over 500% when retailers provided samples.
Additional data from a Knowledge Networks-PDI study showed just how effective product samples are when it comes to driving sales. The research showed samples offered to customers increased the sales of the full-sized products by an average of 475% on the day the samples were provided.
Test Strategies to Increase Your Sales
There’s no one psychological strategy guaranteed to shore up sales at your company. Different markets respond in unique ways to various methods.
Don’t be afraid to try one of the strategies shared above in your company to boost your sales. Just remember to set it up in a way that you can test and measure the results to know what works and what doesn’t.
You want to track your analytics and metrics before you make any changes, and then follow the numbers as you implement a new strategy. Account for and control outside variables (meaning that you shouldn’t try two different strategies at once).
Through your experimentation, you’ll find the right strategy that fits with both your business model and the customers you want to encourage to buy more.