Marketers estimate that as much as 70% of purchases made in retail stores are unplanned. These unplanned purchases classify as impulse buying, which research shows to be deeply influenced by emotions and feelings. But what are the exact psychological and emotional triggers retailers can use to provoke them?

An Introduction to Feelings and Emotions

Feelings arise directly from our perception of the physical world. Everything that we hear, smell, see, taste or touch will inevitably make us feel something. The results of those feelings are emotions, and they may change from person to person. Therefore, it is almost impossible to predict how a customer will react to a certain promotional material or to any given visual merchandising.

However, psychology and physiology can tell us a little bit about how the human brain answers to stimuli. Or, in simple terms, how certain feelings appear. For example, it’s been proven that spaces with red colors cause more hunger because our brain associates it with edible products, such as berries, tomatoes or peppers. Orange, another warm color, is associated with higher energy, while less show-stopping colors such as grey have the opposite effect. Generally, red, white and black are the colors that attract the most attention.

When a customer is at retail store, he or she is exposed to factors which may or may not lead them to impulse buying. And these psychological and emotional factors, to which we will call ‘triggers’, are much stronger in retail than in e-commerce. In fact, only 20% of customers admit to have bought by impulse online. But then again, the perception of the physical world does not exist in that scenario.

The Surprising Power of Scents

Scents used in retail

Although this might surprise you, our sense of smell is our strongest. Humans are able to memorize up to 10 000 distinct odors, and each of them will evoke a different feeling – pleasure and happiness or anxiety and sadness. Obviously, you will want the scent of your store to be closer to the first few rather than the latter.

However, a good scent is more than transporting your clients to a happy place. It’s about creating a comfortable place, one in which the smell corresponds to what you’re trying to sell. A store that smells like disinfectant can be the cleanest ever, but will probably make clients feel like they just entered the dentist’s office. Chemical perfumes should be avoided on food stores and vice-versa, and men’s fragrances shouldn’t be used for shops mainly targeted at females.

Brands have slowly been catching up to this. In 2012, Victoria’s Secret started diffusing a fragrance in some of their shops, and found that customers were willing to spend more time in those stores. The vice-president of Hugo Boss’s marketing department even goes so far as saying that the stores would feel cold without the fragrance they’ve created, and that it has become a part of their marketing mix.

If you are interested in creating a scent for your store, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Lavender, basil, cinnamon and vanilla reduce anxiety. Their smell will soothe and calm your clients.
  • Peppermint, thyme, eucalyptus, rosemary and citrus fruits are more energizing and stimulating.
  • Ginger, cardamom and chocolate are warm smells that evoke romance.
  • Black pepper increases arousal and can be over-stimulating.

Music Sets the Tone (and the sales)

Apart from smell, hearing is our most perceptive sense. The areas of the brain that we use to process the meter, timber, rhythm and pitch of music are the same ones that deal with emotions and mood. Simply put, this means music can effectively change how we feel on a given moment.

Psychologists often use this knowledge to treat patients with depression and anxiety. Marketers use it to make customers happier, more comfortable and less rational at the store. It’s no coincidence that most retail shops use fast-paced pop in loud volumes – this type of music weakens self-control, which may lead clients spending more than they originally planned. Several studies have also shown that customers tend to spend more time at restaurants and caffés with music in the background.

But perhaps the most puzzling results of the influence of music date back to a study published in 1999. For two weeks, a wine-selling store changed their soundtrack between German music and French chanson. On the days they choose German music, the sales of German wines skyrocketed. On the other hand, when they played French music, French wines far oversold the German wines. According to these results, music may not only affect our mood – but also what we decide to buy.

Novelties At First Sight

Novelty in window display design

Exposure to something new increases the amount of dopamine in our bodies. So, when customers see a new product on the selves, they will be immediately drawn to it. It’s the promise of novelty, the feeling that there might be a reward awaiting, the potential for pleasure – and that alone is a motivation to buy.

The human love for novelty is the reason why well known brands, like Apple or Samsung, release new versions of their products ever so often, even if there are not a lot of improvements in the new version. They toy with the human desire to explore the unknown.

To everyday, run of the mill stores, this essentially means that customers should see novelties. And  where? At the front of the store, with several levels of height. Ideally, customers should see the newest and most expensive products right when they enter. You can also try to put them on the display along with ‘prop’ product that clients will surely defer comparing to the new one.

But what novelties should these be? Non-essential products. You don’t need to put much effort into promoting essential products; clients are going to buy them either way. For example, on a pet shop, you know pet owners will always buy food for their little friends. Of course that if there’s a new flavor or promotion you will want to highlight it, but your storefront will be best used to display new toys and grooming materials.

Finally, don’t forget to change the highlighted products every two weeks. Keep the novelties coming!

Perceived Urgency

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest psychological and emotional triggers in retail is the perceived sense of urgency. This may be brought on by the customers themselves (they may have a limited amount of time to spend at the store, for example), by a limited-time offer or by a limited stock.

A common technique is to create promotions such as “3 for the price of 2: only today!” or “limited editions” which force the customer to either buy on the spot or not. Promotions that don’t have a limited timeframe but have a limited stock instead also have the same effect – for example, in clothes stores, customers will be afraid their size will sell out. In fact, this technique is valid even online: airlines and hotels often display warnings such as “Only 2 seats left at this price!” or “Only 1 room left!” to increase their bookings.

In other cases, the fear takes another dimension: it’s a phenomenon known as FoMO (the fear of missing out), in which customers feel afraid of losing an extraordinary experience if they decide not to buy. This is ultimately related with the feeling of regret – the regret of not buying a ticket to a certain concert, of not buying a certain voucher for a getaway weekend, the regret of not having bought ice cream or popcorn to eat during movie night.

This perceived urgency will put more pressure on the client to make the decision on the spot – a tick-tock over their heads. Rushing the buying process often results in less rational decisions, and, as people in retail can attest to, increased sales.

Familiar Faces and Authority Figures

According to Forbes, an overwhelming 90% of customers research local businesses before they become clients. This happens because, anthropologists explain, customers inherently trust references, especially when they come from authority figures. Online, authority figures are people whose opinion customers value: people they follow on social media, bloggers, writers of online publications. Offline, authority figures may be well-known celebrities or respected professionals.

Customers are more likely to buy products advertised or recommended by celebrities they empathize with, even if they are not items they are usually interested in. For example, Henry Kissinger’s 2014 political book World Order had a boost in its sales in 2015 after Mark Zuckerberg chose it for his book club. So, if you have a book shop, you could have a stand with Mark or Oprah’s picks for their respective book clubs and easily increase their sales.

Professionals like dentists, doctors and dermatologists are also respected by the general public. Food supplements, toothpastes and even make up sell more when they are approved by them. Colgate knows this better than anybody – it continuously advertises that 80% of dentists recommend their toothpaste.

Another “authority figure” are fellow customers. Clients can be persuaded by products that “2 in 3 Americans buy”. Again, this trigger is so powerful that it doesn’t work only in retail. If you have ever booked a room on, you will be familiar with their signs “Booked x times today” and “popular choices in {city}”.

At your store, you should always display banners and brochures of products recommended by authority figures. Make these products front and center on their respective sections. For example, if you sell table tennis balls and you happen to have a large stock of an edition signed by legendary table tennis champion Timo Boll, why not highlight those specific packages?

Whatever You Give to the World…

…the world will give right back to you. If you are nice to your clients, they will feel compelled to be nice to you as well. Kindness is a great psychological and emotional trigger and should be present across your services. The first person who’s never bought anything just because the salesperson was nice may throw the first rock.

From the shop assistants to the customer service, every one of the company’s employees should make the customer feel like they’re their biggest priority. The client shouldn’t feel like they’re being bothersome, quite the opposite. The whole experience needs to be a positive. And when this happens, statistics show that satisfied clients return even after a bad experience. In fact, in an study made by Lee Resources, 70% will buy again if the complaint is solved in their favor.

Moreover, customers may also feel guilty for giving you trouble and not buying anything. Some people always feel compelled to buy something after they’ve tried a number of samples for free, for example.

Being exclusive.

This is the ultimate emotional trigger for customers in retail: feeling like they’re exclusive. Being offered something they didn’t expect, giving them access to pre-releases or other benefits with a loyalty card, memorizing their name and anything else that makes them feel special – not just another customer – will surely make them come back to your establishment over and over again.

There’s More Coming Up

Obviously, these 7 psychological triggers barely scratch the surface in terms of potential tactics and “nudges” a store owner might choose to use in order to increase sales, so we’re going to turn this post into a series series that will contain a more in-depth look at pricing, merchandising / design and marketing best practices that are based upon fundamental psychological triggers.