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Understanding the psychology of shopping to increase sales

12 minute read

Polly Kay
Polly Kay

The psychology of shopping is a fascinating field of study, and one that is very well understood today, even by marketing-savvy laypersons – at least as far as traditional real-world retail sales are concerned.

Applying psychological principles and consumer behaviorism to online retail sales, on the other hand, has only really begun to take off in a big way over the course of the last decade.

Understanding how online shoppers search, browse and select the things they want to buy, as well as knowing what it takes to clinch the sale and avoid abandoned carts can help you to present your offerings and approach in the right way to win custom and repeat sales. In order to do this, you need to know the basics of the psychology of online shopping, and how this differs from physical store shopper decision making.

Consumer psychology is widely used by big online brands like Netflix, who employ psychologists within their Consumer Insights Division to help to boost viewer figures and extend viewing times.

By learning about the psychology of online sales and purchasing and how it helps to drive consumer choices, you can apply these principles to your own online storefront to boost your sales, regardless of the size of your operation. The basic principles of applied consumer psychology are highly scalable, and can help even the smallest of start-ups to increase their revenue.

In this article I will provide a short introductory primer to the psychology of online shopping, and how SMEs can apply consumer behaviour principles in practice to boost sales.

The origins of consumer psychology

Consumer psychology or the study of consumer behaviour is tasked with determining what people want to buy, and vitally, why they want to buy it – what makes the difference between an abandoned cart and a successful purchase, and how to incentivise the customer journey to increase sales.

The core principle of consumer psychology has its roots in the study of behaviourism, or the ways in which external factors can influence and drive an individual’s purchasing decisions.

American John B. Watson first pioneered the study of consumer behaviour in the first half of the 20th century, and as the real-world results of Watson’s research began to bear out his theories, the study of consumer psychology has grown and grown.

Today, consumer psychology is utilised to great effect by well-known brands across all manner of niches and industries, including Kleenex, Marie Curie, and even the Keep Britain Tidy campaign.

Netflix is one of the biggest and best-known companies that integrate consumer psychology into their platform to keep viewers engaged and returning for more. The application of consumer psychology is responsible for those auto-play countdowns to the next episode of your show, the selection of shows recommended for you to watch next, and even the specific thumbnails used for each show, which are personalised to appeal to different types of viewers and may vary from person to person depending on their interests.

How the psychology of shopping is applied in successful real-world retail units

Our interest in and understanding of online shopping psychology is a very modern facet of the wider study of consumer behaviour, and there are still some important lessons that can be learnt from older studies of real-world retail psychology and consumer behaviour.

The integration of consumer psychology into the business models of real-world retail units is something that we witness every day, and your local chain supermarket is a great place to look for examples of applied consumer psychology in action.

Ever wondered why the fruit and veg section is the first area you pass through when you enter a store, why the aisle arrangement keeps changing from month to month, or how the smell of freshly baked bread permeates most large supermarkets throughout the day? It’s the application of consumer psychology.

Displaying green produce at the very entrance to the store gives the shopper an impression of freshness, whilst keeping consumers guessing when it comes to finding the locations of their favourite products undeniably annoys shoppers, but also increases their footfall throughout the store, offering additional opportunities to sell.

That delicious fresh bread aroma is deliberately vented to permeate the supermarket itself, because appealing to the senses in this way whilst shopping for food helps to increase impulse sales and the purchase of more goods.

The arrangement of products on your supermarket shelves aren’t left to chance either – premium and high-value branded products are displayed at eye level, whilst store brands and budget lines will be showcased lower or higher up on the shelves.

When it comes to products marketed to children like certain breakfast cereals, you might well find that these will be situated closer to a child’s line of sight than that of an adult – and that the eyes of characters used on the packaging are large, and generally slanted downwards to catch the attention of children, not adults.

Many supermarkets and other stores deliberately channel shoppers via a certain route, Something that Swedish furniture giant Ikea is well known for. This ensures that the store maximises the amount of products that they can showcase to their shoppers, albeit sometimes at the cost of alienating and annoying their prospects. However, the widespread utilisation of this approach to managing the store’s foot traffic pays off nevertheless in increase cart values at the till itself.

Even the very annoyance that such a set-up can cause to shoppers can work in the store’s favour too. Whilst many shoppers doubtlessly consider abandoning their carts and getting out of the store, there is little point in doing so when the exit route remains the same regardless.

Additionally, there is an element of reverse psychology in play here as well that often works in the store’s favour when played off shoppers who hate the store layout. This can result in larger purchases and a greater number of impulse purchases from shoppers who are determined to make sure they pick up every little thing they want or think they might need in one go, in order to avoid a return trip in the near future.

These examples of real-world consumer psychology in action all make perfect sense when you know about them, and similar principles are applied to online retail sales too, and just as effectively.

How understanding the psychology of online shopping can help you to increase sales

The similarities and differences between online and offline sales psychology

Integrating consumer behaviourism and psychology into online marketing and sales is of course vastly different to managing a consumer’s journey through a real-world store and all that this entails, but the core principles remain the same.

The key to effective manipulation of shopper behaviour with consumer psychology has its roots in finding out what shoppers want or can be made to want, and creating a message, tone and impression that supports and reinforces the perception that this can be provided by the online store or retailer in question.

Whilst you can’t physically channel online shoppers on a set route around your website or pump enticing aromas out of their browsing devices, there are correlations between online and offline retail psychology that apply equally well to either enterprise.

For instance, if a retail store sets their routes within the store to maximise the amount of distance a shopper walks and the number of products and incentives that they are exposed to along the way, emulating this effect online can be tackled in a number of different ways.

Integrated suggestions of alternative or complementary products within item pages, suggestions on what other people have viewed or bought, and navigation options that take the consumer on a journey through the different facets of your site and product ranges all work well. However, making you site hard to navigate or backtrack on, or forcing your browsers to follow a set route isn’t something you can achieve successfully online, and will lead to abandoned carts and frustrated buyers, because they can simply click away to a competitor rather than having to physically find the exit to your store.

Utilising consumer behaviour tactics into your approach is something that should be integrated into your website at every stage of the game, from the design choice, colour scheme and navigation right through to each individual product description itself.

Knowing your audience demographics is just the beginning and provides the building blocks of your foundation for increasing sales. This principle is shared between both real-world and virtual stores, but how this information is applied in practice is very different when targeting online audiences.

Why and how you should apply online shopping psychology to attract customers and incentivise purchases

If your online store is bringing in traffic but failing to achieve the level of sales that you hope for, the application of online shopping psychology can help you to make the changes that you need to attract customers, keep them on your website, and incentivise sales.

If you can integrate online consumer psychology into your online store and marketing collateral, you can increase sales, raise the value of your shopper’s purchases and vitally, help to avoid abandoned carts at the checkout stage. Need some evidence? Check out Help Scout’s infographics of case studies into applied consumer psychology for some facts and figures.

So, how can you apply online consumer behaviour principles to you own online store to drive sales? Here are some simple angles to get you started, which work equally well for online SMEs as they do for big brands.

Get your store’s theme and colour scheme right

The appearance and impression given by your online store has just as much of an impact on online consumer behaviour as it does for real-word businesses. This means that your website’s theme and colour scheme should be planned to appeal to your target demographics and support sales. 93% of buyers focus on the visual appearance of the products they are considering, and the store they are browsing for them in.

If you’re serving an audience of young hipsters, vintage-style fonts and colours will appeal to them on an emotional level and give the impression from the get-go that this is a shop that they would enjoy buying from. However, such a style would generally be a poor fit for, say, a tech company or a business selling gadgets.

Bright, bold colours generate a sense of energy and momentum, whilst pastel or more muted tones generate a relaxed or calming impression that might be better suited to the buyer experience that you are trying to create.

If you’re trying to market to impulse buyers and shoppers that are ready to make a purchase now, generating a sense of urgency with bright, bold shades and incentives will tend to work best. If you’re looking to engage shoppers who are going to take their time over a decision, potentially purchase multiple goods or high value items, or keep coming back for future purchases, something calmer and more relaxing like blue shades would probably be a better fit.

Subtly direct the customer journey

If you want to increase the value of your completed sales, encourage larger purchases or upsell accessories and complementary products, learning how to direct and incentivise the customer journey is key, and the psychology of consumer behaviour can help you to do just this.

Keep your site’s navigation easy and intuitive to use and integrate suggestions and links where relevant throughout your content, without going overboard and presenting the dilemma of “too much choice” or competing stimulus.

How you do this is just as important as why. Integrate thumbnails of suggested accessories or alternative products (including those at a higher price point) within your item pages, and promote and highlight trending or popular products.

Creating the illusion of scarcity is a powerful tool for online stores, and one that remains highly effective. For instance, rather than showing stats on how many people have purchased a certain type of item, instead show how many are left available to buy when this drops below a certain threshold, to provide that final push to complete a purchase.

Additionally, the same consumer psychology that can be applied in physical stores like supermarkets when it comes to getting higher value products in your prospect’s line of vision also apply to online stores too. Because we read left to right and top to bottom, product images and thumbnails displayed to the left and centre of the viewer’s screen are those most likely to draw the eye and retain the viewer’s attention, so reserve these spaces for high value goods or products that you are looking to promote.

Emphasise value and benefits

Whatever your prospect is considering buying and regardless of its price point, your buyer has to be able to see the value in their purchase. The importance of value increases for items with higher price points, or those for which there are many competitors fighting for market share at an equivalent or lower cost.

What do your buyers get apart from the item itself? If you offer free shipping, expedited shipping, a warranty or guarantee or any other advantage, make sure that this information is clearly detailed within view of the item’s pricing details.

Additionally, if you offer something extra such as a bundle deal or free gift with purchase, ensure that this information is presented front and centre too. Any of these small, subtle things can help to both incentivise the immediate purchase, and put your website in your prospect’s mind in the future when they are considering buying something else.

Keep it simple

Unless you’re the sole distributor of a much in demand product or have otherwise cornered the market for something with a waiting stream of shoppers, you’re operating in a buyer’s market. It only takes a second or two for a prospect to lose the incentive and browse away from your site or begin their search again for a competitor, and so avoiding and negating customer pain points is an integral part of applied consumer psychology.

Offering a pick and mix bundle or sliding scale of discounts might mean that your prospect can make a greater financial saving on their purchase, but if they have to get out a calculator to work out what this might be or go through a protracted process of finding and selecting different elements for their bundle, they might not stay along for the ride.

Offering predetermined bundles or automated discounts that allow the shopper to view the value of their cart and its final price as they shop helps to keep things simple and maintain your buyer’s momentum.

Similarly, stating item prices with VAT to be added later might catch the shopper’s eye in the first instance and even bring in more traffic to your website because the price appears lower at a glance. However, unless additional VAT is the norm within your industry (which is rarely the case with B2C retail sales) this can confuse the customer, and generate a negative perception of your brand because the advertised price is not in fact the ultimate purchase price.

Avoid abandoned shopping carts

Abandoned shopping carts are the bane of online retailers everywhere, and one of the greatest sources of frustration for businesses. Getting ahead of the game by pre-empting and mitigating the main causes of abandoned carts as well as knowing how to incentivise a shopper to return to an abandoned cart later on can help to avoid this.

Shipping charges are perhaps the best known yet least well understood cause of abandoned carts, and it is easy to see why this is such a point of confusion and frustration for retailers.

We all know that post and packing costs money, and objectively, your prospects know this too – but consumer psychology is concerned with how shoppers think and feel on an instinctive and emotional level rather than solely a logical one, and shipping costs are one of the first casualties of emotional buying decisions.

Overly high or disproportionate shipping costs will of course discourage your prospects, even if you offer a flat shipping rate regardless of order value and usually ship at a loss. If your prospect only wants to buy one or two low-value items and the shipping cost significantly increases the final price, they’ll probably decide that they can do without it, or wait to purchase another time when their order value better justifies the shipping cost.

We all know that free shipping isn’t really free, but it can be a huge incentive that can help you to land bigger, more regular orders and so is often a price worth paying, particularly if this sets you apart from the competition and you highlight this USP effectively.

Additionally, offering free shipping for orders over a certain low-ish threshold and a minimal or token postage fee below this value improves your customer’s perception of the overall value offered by their purchase, and incentivises repeat custom.

Another common pain point for shoppers is having to enter a huge range of personal information simply to check out. Obviously there are specific details that you will need your shopper to provide in order to process their payment and ship their order, but forcing them to register with your site, await an email conformation, click a link and so on when a competitor offers a fast, seamless guest checkout option instead increases the likelihood of abandoned carts.

There is also value in following up with shoppers who abandon their carts before checkout, and there are a number of ways that you can do this. If your shopper has previously registered with your site and logged in while browsing, an automated email reminder or prompt to them within a day of their visit can incentivise them to return and complete their purchase.

A small percentage discount within the email and vitally, ensuring that your shopper can find their cart in the state that they left it can provide the added push your buyer needs.

Programmatic and personalised ads are another option; if a shopper spent a long time browsing your site and looking at certain products, reminding them of this with well-placed automated ad placements over the following few days can help to incentivise the purchase later on.

Taking the customer view

Viewing your website’s user experience through the eyes of your customers can help you to identify potential problems or loss of momentum throughout the sales funnel, and permits you to identify and mitigate flaws and problems. Sole traders and the owners of SMEs can also draw on their own experiences of shopping on other sites and apply their findings to their own online portals too.

When you’re browsing the net or searching for products you are interested in buying for yourself, make notes on the things that appeal to you, incentivise you, and make you want to buy from a certain site – and things that put you off or cause you to abandon your cart.

Naturally, most business owners will have a fairly biased view of their own website’s appeal and functionality, because after all, if you thought anything was wrong with it you would have already taken steps to address it. This can introduce implicit bias and make it harder to see problems that are discouraging shoppers from completing a purchase, and it is important to take this effect into account.

Check out your competitors too to help to provide some objectivity, and see if you can identify things that they do well or that you do better, and why. Additionally, use your site’s analytics and data captures to identify how your shoppers navigate your site and where they leave it, which can help you to pinpoint where browsers are losing their emotional commitment to a purchase and work to correct it.

Polly Kay

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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