Have you ever wondered why shops and shopping centres are laid out in a particular manner?  It’s no accident.  There’s a lot of psychology behind those clever designs.  We take an irreverent swipe at shopping culture as the consumer fights back.

Like many South Africans who live in urban areas, my wife and I are ‘mall rats’, having spent many an hour at one of the many shopping centres dotted around the landscape of Greater Johannesburg.  In fact, in return for the amount of money that these establishments have successfully enticed us to spend, we should become honorary shareholders!

But shops are not designed as architectural masterpieces, contributing to the cultural advancement of society – they are designed with one purpose in mind – to provide an atmosphere conducive to parting you from your hard-earned Rand.  Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with this – after all, the shop-owners also need to eat – a basic understanding of the psychological reasons for designing a supermarket in a specific fashion will help you prevent many of those impulse purchases, which in many cases, are neither wanted nor needed.

For instance, have you ever wondered why the supermarkets are usually situated right at the far end of the shopping mall, the “toy” shops (read: Exclusive Books, Look and Listen, Gary’s Greatest Gizmo’s, etc.) in the middle, and the eating places near the entrance?  It’s simple – you need to buy groceries, and you know that your local mall has a Pick n Pay, so your reason for going to the mall has already been established.

Not so with the toy shops.  Therefore, shopping mall designers lay malls out in a manner that forces you to walk past most of the 103 speciality stores whilst making your way down the 13.6 kilometre corridor that runs from the car park to the supermarket.  Chances are good that something will catch your eye, inducing you to buy.

For similar reasons, when you walk into a supermarket, you will notice that the “basics” (bread, milk, etc.) are situated right at the back of the store.  This is designed to force you to walk through almost the entire store, with the result that almost no-one who pops into the shop for a loaf of bread ends up buying ONLY a loaf of bread!

The pay-point area conveys equally diabolical messages to its victims.  Imagine – month-end, Saturday morning, trolley piled high and two screaming kids in tow.  What kind of a sadist places 6 racks filled with sweets right in front of the till?  A clever one!  They know that they have a captive audience, and they also know that after three hours in the supermarket, a harassed parent will do anything to shut their brats up.  The profit margin on sweets is among the highest of any item carried in a supermarket, and in fact, many stores are prepared to break even or even make a small loss on bread and milk in order to get you into the store, making up for it on the high-profit lines.

The pay-point area conveys equally diabolical messages to its victims. 

Before our male readers grin smugly and blame their wives for falling for these subliminal messages, we men are probably the most gullible.  And the bait used?  Razor blades!  These innocuous little items are never available in the main part of the shop.  Rather, they are only available for purchase at the ‘kiosk’ – right next to the biltong, SA Rugby magazines, and the Swiss Army knives.  Need we say any more?

Having finally made it out of the supermarket, you then have to wade your way down the same 13.6 kilometre aisle, past the same toy shops that you passed on the way in.  And those kind folks at the bookshops provided those nice comfy chairs for you to rest your weary bodies.  Of course, now that you have taken the load off your feet, the whole experience would be incomplete without some nice filter coffee, a bran muffin, and something to read, would it?  And of course, it would be rather rude to take a magazine off the shelf and read it without paying for it, wouldn’t it?

Having finally extricated yourself from that chair, you finally make it to within 100 metres of the car park, only to be brutally yanked back by the delicious aroma of a Four Cheeses pizza.  Why not, you think.  After all, it is lunchtime.  We won’t even discuss the powerful smell of popcorn that screams “Movies!” across the promenade…

Regular readers of financial publications and websites will have seen the articles on retail stocks that have appeared in previous issues.  They all bear testimony to the same thing – the diabolical methods used by shop designers to prize as much money as possible from your wallet as possible are working.

How do you escape their clutches financially unscathed?  The methods used to take your money may be new, but the advice offered to resist these temptations is tried and tested.  Here are some ways in which the David’s can fight back at the Goliath’s:

  • Do not go shopping on an empty stomach.
    There are few things as effective in preventing you from indulging the nibbles than a hearty breakfast.  But don’t have your breakfast at the Wimpy, or the shopping centre will have already won Round One of the shopping wars within the first 30 minutes.  Rather have your breakfast at home before you go shopping.
  • Support your local corner shop.
    The traditional corner café keeps most of its sweets and nibblies behind the counter, whilst milk and bread tend to be in front.  Therefore, if you are only buying essentials, the corner shop is the one place where you are likely to emerge relatively unscathed.  Whilst their prices may be more expensive than the supermarkets, the extra cost will be offset by the saving in petrol, parking, and hundreds of rand in impulse purchases.

The fact that the corner shop invariably does not accept credit cards means that if you take just enough cash with you to pay for the basics, you will not be able to buy anything else.

A word of warning, however: The shops are striking back, and the fuel stations are their co-conspirators!  Most fuel station convenience stores resemble small supermarkets, whilst Woolworths and Pick n Pay outlets can now be found at many fuel stations.  You can now buy all sorts of goodies whilst you are waiting to have your car filled up – convenient impulse purchases.

  • Make a list and stick to it.  Many people say that this takes all of the fun out of shopping.  But shopping is not meant to be the religious experience that mall owners would like you to believe it is.  You have a quest – jot down your needs on the list, and buy only what is on that list.  That X-Box One is definitely not on the list!
  • Use debit cards rather than credit cards.  By putting a pre-determined amount of money into your debit card account, you can only spend what is there and no more.  Leave your other cards at home, and shop after the banks have closed.  Your impulse purchase will seriously jeopardise your ability to fulfil The List in this case, and your spouse will bend your ear about it for the next week – enough to keep most people on the straight and narrow.