Shop Well For Less

Shop Well For Less:

The “Science” Behind the Show

How can we help people shop well for less?

My initial reaction when I was asked by RDF Television to advise them on their TV show for BBC1 was to say: “Well people could just shop less and do something more beneficial for themselves and their families with the money and time they save.”

Shopping, however, is a major pastime for many people – it’s a form of leisure. People go shopping for something to do, to entertain their kids or to meet up with friends. It’s also a way for families to do something together. And, of course, along the way they buy a load of stuff they don’t really need.

Marketing likes to promote itself in a benevolent way. You’ll hear marketers saying things like “consumers have needs and we offer them goods and services to meet those needs.” But where do these “needs” come from? Well, many are simply made up.

One way that marketers and their ad agencies do this is to make us feel inadequate and a common tactic they use is to make up “problems” that we didn’t even know we had.

Your teeth aren’t white? Don’t worry you can use teeth whitening toothpaste. My dad was a dentist and my brother still is. Your teeth aren’t meant to be white.

But once white becomes the new norm then, if your teeth aren’t white, you’ve inadvertently deviated from the new norm and this can make some people feel bad and even inadequate. This sense of inadequacy can motivate these people to buy a product to help them achieve and fit in with the new ‘white norm’ for teeth.

But it’s all made up and designed to get you to part with your money.

A leading brand’s “regular” toothpaste is a third of the price of its “whitening” version. Of course marketers won’t admit to this. They will say that you are “free” to buy whatever you want, they don’t make you buy anything and their range of products offer rational benefits for different types of people and their different “needs”.

This assumes that you and I make rational decisions whenever we go shopping. But many of us don’t – I certainly don’t as otherwise I’d know why I have a pair of mustard yellow summer weight cotton trousers hanging in my wardrobe that I’ve never worn. Research evidence suggests that only 20% of our choices are made rationally. Marketers and retailers know this.

To keep us buying they engage us emotionally. Just look in your wardrobe. How many pairs of shoes or shirts or handbags or ties have you got and do you really need them all?

We don’t ‘need’ them at all; rather we ‘desire’ them. As we’ve probably all experienced desire is an intense, emotional state that makes us do things we wouldn’t ‘normally’ do. Needs can be met but desire is insatiable.

In fact, some suggest that what we desire isn’t the object of our desire, the new pair of shoes, shirt or handbag, but the feeling of desire itself. Desire is energising and exciting.

So a common trick that marketers and retail designers use is to engage us emotionally when we go shopping. How do they do this? Think of the last time you went into a department store through its main entrance. What hits you first? The smell of the perfume department? Smells bypass our “rational” brain and engage our “emotional” brain.

Even if you’re not going to buy any perfume, it’s had its desired effect as it’s helped to transport you into the realm of an emotional shopper. And emotional shoppers spend more than rational ones.

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “like a kid in a sweet shop.” If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had an experience like I had when my youngest was 3 or 4. Kids are in seventh heaven in a sweet shop. No amount of reasoning with them – ‘no you cant have that’ – works. That’s because kids at this age don’t yet have the capacity to understand reasoned argument, or even unreasonable argument, and are engaged at an emotional level in the sweet shop environment.

Well, the modern retail environment is a bit like an adult sweet shop. Temptation is all around.

The work of the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is instructive here. He identifies two dominant “thinking” systems: system 1 thinking is emotional, impulsive, fast and almost automatic; while system 2 thinking is more deliberate, purposeful, rational and slower.

So if you want to Shop Well For Less try and engage in system 2 thinking. But what practical steps can you take? First, you have to recognize when you’re shopping emotionally versus rationally. Do you ‘need’ it? Or do you ‘desire’ it? Do you have a shopping list? Have you done any research before going shopping? Have you asked yourself what are you replacing with this purchase?

You could try and calculate your “cost per wear” or “price per use.”

You may find yourself spending more on things you use or wear all the time and less on the things you only wear or use occasionally – the opposite of what you’re probably doing now.

Well-known brands are also designed to engage us emotionally. But as we demonstrate in the show, when we don’t know what the brand is, we often choose a cheaper version.

When resources are scarce we also tend to act more rationally because it makes sense to do so – why would we knowingly waste our money? By resources I mean our ability to buy stuff. It’s hardly a surprise therefore, with so much available for us to buy, and with increased access to cheap credit, that we don’t act rationally when we go shopping. You’re not going to be able to stop the shops stocking all that stuff but you can limit your ability to buy. So try and set yourself a budget, try not to exceed it and use cash instead of credit.

And if all else fails, you could do what dad in episode 1 did and chop up your credit card.

I’d love to hear from you with your examples of how you Shop Well for Less.