Stores Manipulate Your Five Senses To Make You Buy More–Here’s How

You’re off to the grocery store and you’ve told yourself that you’re going to strictly stick to your budget. You’ve carefully prepared a shopping list to follow and fully intend not to look at, much less pick up, anything that is not on the list. Yet, when you get to the cashier, you find you have items that are not on the list – and you’re still tempted to grab that chocolate bar displayed on the checkout counter. Why is it so hard to only buy what you need?

Retailers know that consumers have certain needs and also certain “wants”. They know that consumers are vulnerable to the temptation of these “wants”, and work to sway customers into changing their mind – making an unessential want into an irresistible need. To do so, they use various tactics – most of which are subliminal, to influence your buying behavior.

Some of the most successful – and hard to resist – strategies that retailers employ to influence buying behavior rely on manipulating the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.


Sight is the most immediate amongst the senses, which is why it’s the sense retailers move quickly to manipulate.

For instance, when we see certain colors, certain feelings and associations unconsciously come to mind. Red is a color that is often used in store decorations and product branding as it is as a stimulating hue associated with sales. Studies even revealed that waitresses who wear red tend to get bigger tips.

Retailers also design navigation roadblocks to steer you where they want you to go – and past what they want you to see. Notice how basic commodities that everyone needs, like milk and eggs, are found at the back section of a grocery store? By making you go through the store, passing different product areas, they are forcing you to see more of what they have on offer. They are hoping that you will see more items – that may not be on your list – to grab and put in your cart.

Ever wonder why clothing stores bother with fully clothed and accessorized mannequins? It’s not just for decoration, it’s another visual trick. By matching their products, showing you what they would look like all together, their trying to get you to visualize what you would look like in all of that. So that’s why you come in just looking for a blouse and end up buying a matching scarf too.


As consumers, we rarely pay attention to the background music playing in a store or restaurant. So long as it is relatively pleasing to the ears, we don’t mind it – or so you think. Little do you know; the music is being used to suggest that you spend more money.

Music with a good beat has been found to be able to move consumers to make purchases. Shoppers make impulsive purchases and spend more with slow-tempo popular music playing in the background vs when they hear no music.

Music volume also affects buying behavior. According to Emily Anthes of Psychology Today, “Shoppers make more impulsive purchases when they’re overstimulated. Loud volume leads to sensory overload, which weakens self-control.”

Youth-oriented brands also believe that their target market can withstand loud music longer. Hence, in their establishments, they play loud music to attract and maintain a younger clientele.


While you may think you are getting a free treat with free taste samples, you are being subconsciously manipulated.

“Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist. “If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”

The presence of samplers, and their free tastes, instills subconscious ‘pressure’ to buy the product as some shoppers might feel they owe the demonstrator something.

Ariely also pointed out that free samples can make forgotten cravings become more salient. “If I gave you a tiny bit of chocolate, all of a sudden it would remind you about the exact taste of chocolate and would increase your craving,” he explained.


Our olfactory sense is deemed to be the “most emotional” sense as per the research of Nobel Peace Prize winners Richard Axel and Linda Buck. Emotions and memories are triggered whenever we smell something distinct.

“When you first encounter a smell, it serves as a reminder that you might want to make a particular purchase,” says psychology professor Art Markman.

That is why cooked food – and their smells – are all over the supermarket, to let the smell diffuse and stir shopper’s emotions and memories.

Clothing brands also use the “scent branding” technique, wherein a specific scent is paired with the store to mentally condition customers to go back if they enjoyed the shopping experience. A study conducted by consumer psychologist Eric Spangenberg revealed that sales of women’s clothes doubled when “feminine scents” like vanilla were used. The same was true with sales of men’s clothing when masculine scents were used.


Dazzling store displays aren’t meant to just catch your eye, they are meant to lure you into the store and invite you to touch products.

According to environmental psychologist Paco Underhill, you’re more likely to buy an item when you touch it. That is why items are placed in areas where people can easily pick them up.

Stores also try to place certain items in an “imperfect”, slightly messy display. This is because consumers feel more comfortable going over items placed this way, compared to when items are neatly arrayed and organized. Consumers usually don’t want to mess up a neat display. Also, being able to sift through products usually suggests good deals.