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Priming effect in retail marketing

Priming is a controversial concept in behavioral economics. But using it I got a 35% boost in sales. This is what I did.

eye looking at multiple planets

I stumbled upon the concept of priming several years ago when I was building a startup in retail. I had already opened 4 stores, and though I was constantly looking for new locations, I started thinking of ways to improve the revenue in the existing points of sale. Just like with online businesses, stores did great on the launch day and maybe a month after the launch. But then the trend always started to turn, representing more of a flatline that so much desired up and to the right curvature. Traditional approach in marketing to this — stacking up campaigns. In other words, launch a splashy campaign every month — and you’ll be fine.

I was too busy with opening new stores and hiring people, and I did not have enough resources for stacking up campaigns. As a result, I started looking into unconventional ways of improving the bottomline. That’s how I ended up testing the priming effect.

What is priming in behavioral economics?

Scientifically speaking, priming is a cognitive process that occurs when exposure to one stimulus alters a person or animal’s reaction to a later stimulus. Probably everyone here heard about Pavlov dogs experiment: the scientist rang the bell then fed the dogs. Eventually the animals started associating the bell's sound with the feeding. This is one example of priming. But there are many others.

Have you ever wondered why they always play slow music in the restaurants? That’s because multiple studies have shown that slow music helps customers spend more time in one place. Relaxing sounds impact your hidden brain and tell you to take a break. There’s no need to rush. Sit and relax.

Have you ever thought why the music that they play in mass market clothing stores (like Zara, H&M, Mango etc.) is dynamic but never recognisable? These sounds are not the ones you hear on Spotify or Apple Music. Why? Why not switch on the hits? Well, partly because of the copyright. But honestly, do you believe these stores can’t afford to pay extra hundred thousands to a singer? Another reason why hits are never played in cloth stores is that research has shown: unrecognisable music helps to sell more.

Another example from retail + music: research ran in 2006 proved that playing German music in a grocery store results in a 15% increase in beer sales. Playing French music in stores does the same to wine sales.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Then why did I call this concept controversial? In recent years there have been several experiments that showed incredible results but that later could not be proven by other experimenters. For example, there was a research that declared: people who hold cold drinks in their hands tend to give more reserved, less emotional (aka cold) responses. This experiment was repeated multiple times and research has never come to the same conclusion. Another example: reading out loud words like “old”, “frail”, “slow” etc. decreased participants’ speed afterwards. This experiment has also been repeated and other researchers have not found this connection.

However, there is no doubt in the scientific community about certain stimuli and the way the influence our further behavior in a hidden, subconscious way.

Examples of priming in retail

How I got my 35% sales boost using priming

When I started digging deeper into priming in marketing I found out that it’s mostly about using visuals, sounds, smells and words to improve sales. I read the experiments on music and figured out that if I wanted customers to hang out longer in my stores, I needed slow and unrecognizable music.

I put together a playlist with some chill out relaxing compositions that I could play for free. I started with one store to run all the experiments there and compare the results with the rest.

Next — the smell. You can probably guess without any scientific background that a smell of freshly baked cookies or French croissants would increase sales in a food store. My problem was that I sold Asian groceries — and those don’t match well with a smell of a croissant. And as most of behavioral economics researchers are Europeans and Americans I failed to find any data on “Asian” essences. I had a choice — ignore the Asian aspect or come up with my own signature smell. I went with the later. And in a couple of weeks my experimental store was filled with the aroma of roasted shallots — amazing savory, sweet and mouthwatering smell that is very natural to Thai and Malai cuisine.

I put together a playlist with some chill out relaxing compositions that I could play for free.

The visuals and the mirror neurons

This was the easy part. If you have ever seen food ads you probably know that most of them feature 2 aspects: 1) the final meal that was cooked with the advertised ingredients — obviously, as delicious, beautiful and mouth watering as it can be; 2) and people who are happily consuming it. Happy people would be a part of a demo for the most products actually. An excited couple moving into a new apartment in a real estate agency commercial. Happy mom bathing her child in a childcare product ad.

Why is that? Because seeing someone who resembles us triggers specific neurons in your brain. They are called mirror neurons. They make us want to experience the same emotion people we see in the commercial obviously experience. As a result our subconscious brain that is actually very greedy for positive emotions instantly starts telling us to buy “this magic thing that definitely brings happiness’. No, you won’t hear this inner voice in your head. But you will just start considering the purchase. And if the pain of payment is not very high (meaning, if the price is affordable) and the process is as frictionless as can be (for example, you’re already in a store, the only thing that is needed is a swipe of a credit card) the chances are very high that you will buy something that is advertised by happy people.

You might have guessed already: I hired a freelancer to make several short (3 min long) videos for me that featured happy people first cooking and then consuming Thai and Chinese food. The funny part is that I did not even bother to feature brands we were selling. I did not want visitors to focus their attention on brands. I wanted them to focus on the emotional vibe. The videos were played constantly throughout the day on 2 large monitors in the experimental store.

Now, imagine the result. A visitor entered the store and was met by the sounds of pleasant music that encouraged them to feel more relaxed and stroll aimlessly along the isles. They were followed by a mouthwatering sweet aroma of fried shallots coming out of opened jars that were refilled every week to keep the smell fresh and seducing. They lifted up their eyes and saw happy excited people consuming Asian food — it’s so easy to cook it, and yet so rewarding. The result was stunning: my weekly sales of the experimental store exceeded the YoY sales in the same store 35% and were 27% better than sales in the stores where I did not run any experiments.

My weekly sales of the experimental store exceeded the YoY sales in the same store 35% and were 27% better than sales in the stores where I did not run any experiments

Priming and unexpected drop in sales

You would not be surprised if I tell you that I rolled out the priming elements to all other stores and started using music, sound and smells in newly opened locations as well. But a couple of months later I noticed that one of the stores started showing worse results. What could it be? Yes, there were a couple of new sales reps but they had been around for sometime already. I checked out road works around the location — nothing. I talked to the manager, if they have been noticing something unusual — nothing. I was confused.

Finally, I decided to visit the store — and as soon as I made a first step in, I figured out the reason. Right at the doorsteps I was ambushed by the strong full smell of... Indian aroma sticks. It turned out that one of the new sales reps was a big fan, and they always carried them everywhere they go in the backpack. Everyone in the store got used to the aroma and did not notice it already. But I did — like all the store visitors. And their hidden brain instantly started signaling a disruption in this picture: Indian aroma sticks + relaxing music is fine. But sticks + shallots + Thai food — no-no, there’s something fishy here. Result: the sales dropped. I asked the sales rep not to bring sticks to work — and the problem was fixed.

Priming effect for online products

When I opened an online store as well I started looking for opportunities to use priming here as well. I could not obviously use smells and sounds. But I still could use compelling visuals and most of all — words. My goal was to recreate the smells and the flavors of the resulting meals using words. I hired a copywriter who worked hard on every single product copy. It was not about SEO (I used other tools to improve SEO — you can read more on it here). It was only about making website visitors’ mouths water, that’s it.

Result — the conversion for visitors who landed on the product page was around 12% which is very high for e-comm.


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