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Subconscious mechanisms at the point of sale

By Katharina Kuehn

Author: Katharina Kuehn - Director RDG Insights

Do you sometimes find yourself heading to the shops for one item and leaving with a boot full of shopping bags?
Do you spot a store and get somehow magically drawn in and end up buying 10 things you never thought you would need?

Or, the other way round, do you set out for some serious retail therapy but get turned away, because it just doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel inspiring, doesn’t feel motivating?

A recent shopping trip with a friend reminded me of the underlying subconscious mechanisms that determine whether and why we engage in a certain retail experience – or why not.  As she went on a proper spending spree in a well known Australian fashion store, my brain (and credit card!) went on a short holiday. While my friend was clearly excited by the whole experience of this retailer, I simply wasn’t engaged.

What really determines shoppers’ expectations?
Human and therefore consumer decision making takes place largely below the radar of the conscious mind. Every stimuli (advertisement, promotion, retail experience, product, brand) gets evaluated subconsciously and filtered through the emotional operating system in the consumer’s brain. Then we determine what is noise and what is relevant, what we perceive at all, what we recall and what motivates a certain action. This emotional operating system consists of three major forces, in neuro sciences these are known as ‘The Big 3. They are:


  • The Balance system (goal and purpose: security, avoidance of risk, stability)
  • The Dominance system (goal and purpose: self-assertion, displacement of the competition, autonomy)
  • The Stimulance system (goal and purpose: discovery of new things, learning new skills)

Recognising the wishes of the 3 emotion systems of Balance, Dominance and Stimulance is crucial. Why? Because these 3 systems cause completely different shopper expectations in terms of store experience, visual merchandise and even pricing strategies. These systems form the foundation of the Limbic personality types (as shown in the image below) which I will discuss further in future blogs and I welcome you to contact me to understand more about these types.
Lets explore four types of shopping experiences that can be clearly aligned with ‘The Big Three,’ easy, experiential, efficient and exclusive shopping.

Easy Shopping
Let’s start with the Balance system and its needs and wishes when shopping. Safety, no stress, order, easiness and convenience. Simply put, the Balance system seeks a shopping experience which is as easy and comforting as possible. Visual merchandising and store layouts that are functional and straightforward with easy navigation and quick orientation are preferred. Products should be simple, reliable quality at a predictable, constantly low price point (every day low price strategy as opposed to aggressive, temporary discounting). Too many options have an unsettling effect on the Balance system – it wants limited choice.

A well executed example is provided by Aldi. The very narrow product range within each category, functional store design and visual merchandise, strictly controlled and absolutely constant product quality, everyday low prices. Aldi’s core market? Customers with an emphasis on the Balance system in their brains. 

Experiential Shopping
Exactly the opposite are the expectations of shoppers who are predominantly driven by the Stimulance system. The Stimulance system is attracted to indulgence and experience oriented visual merchandise, such as tasting stations and distinct zones, they seek “experiential shopping”. Choice and variety can’t be big enough and whilst the Balance system is satisfied with home brands, the Stimulance system prefers manufacturer brands with a strong emphasis on lifestyle, pleasure and experience.

Efficient Shopping  
For shoppers who seek efficient shopping, the Dominance system is the driving force, demanding highly efficient and hassle free shopping, without waiting times; particularly when it comes to everyday goods. Self-service is preferred because it serves the means of autonomy in the process and reduces dependency on service staff. Aggressive pricing and discounts appeal to the Dominance system. 

Exclusive Shopping 
Exclusive shopping, again, originates in the Dominance system. Particularly when it comes to products that have a high socially distinctive function – like fashion, cars or living & furniture – the Dominance system seeks status and exclusivity. This is then exactly how products need to be displayed in retail: exclusive ambience, ranges of the highest quality product, and very importantly, personalised service.

Hugo Boss provides an excellent example of executing this proposition right down to the smallest, even subconscious, details. When we look at the flagship store in meatpacking district of New York, we find scarce product, tall racking (subconsciously triggering the emotion of having to climb up to reach the product), exclusive materials, subdued lighting, club appeal.    


All of the above are quite contrary emotional worlds in shoppers minds. So, how can retail respond to this? The answer lies is relating these emotional worlds at the point of sale to the target markets that correspond, and then executing to these propositions. This achieves a relevant retail offer that will draw the right customers into stores, resonate with them and create profitable and loyal relationships.