Shopping on Drugs
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I noticed recently that I have an entirely irrational shopping habit. I wanted to buy a packet of crisps, but when I went to pick up my favourite make, it was on special offer. Buy two, get one free. Well, I’m not stupid: I wasn’t going to fall for that old trick. I didn’t want two packets (let alone three). But the offer made me think that if I just bought the one packet, I would be paying over the odds – since purchasing a second packet would lower the average cost of each crisp by a third. So, because there was a special offer on two, I didn’t buy one.
The science of shopping is well advanced, though, as on this occasion, matters can go awry. What works for some individuals won’t work for all. Nonetheless, retailers are adept at manipulating us. They will put chocolates near the till: few would buy washing powder on impulse, but confectionary is less resistible. They will play muzak to create the appropriate mood.
It seems unlikely that governments will ever allow retailers to manipulate our mood and preferences more directly, through pumping oxytocin through the air-conditioning system, say. My guess is that if they did allow it there would be an outcry.
But trying to work out why manipulation through harmless drugs is worse than manipulation through product display is tricky. One can choose to ban the altering of brain states through drugs whilst allowing it through music, but the distinction seems arbitrary.
Sometimes arbitrary distinctions are necessary, of course. But it might pay to focus on what one really objects to in retail science. After all, most of us don’t feel manipulated by clothes shop that display their wares neatly on hangers: that just seems sensible – although of course the main point of setting-out products in a pleasing way, as opposed to just piling them up, is precisely to make them more attractive to purchase.
We feel manipulated, I think, when retailers mess with our second order desires. We want the chocolate, but we don’t want to want the chocolate. In addition, part of feeling manipulated is that the process by which we are inveigled into purchasing products is at one level hidden from us: it operates at a subconscious level.
My suggestion is that if small doses of harmless oxytocin are shown to benefit retailers, we don’t ban them from using it: instead we require them to put up signs so that retailers know how they are being influenced. In this way, manipulation through oxytocin would be less objectionable than manipulation through muzak.