Subconscious mechanisms at the point of sale

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, and 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?

As discussed in earlier blogs (e.g. The power of the subconscious), human, and therefore consumer, decision-making takes place largely below the radar of the conscious mind. Every stimulus (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 neurosciences these are known as ‘The Big Three’. 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 three emotion systems of balance, dominance and stimulance is crucial. Why? Because these three systems cause completely different shopper expectations in terms of store experience, visual merchandise and even pricing strategies.

Let’s 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 (everyday 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 time; 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 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 the 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, and club appeal.


The Hugo Boss store in New York

All of the above are quite contrary emotional worlds in shoppers’ minds. So, how can retail respond to this? The answer lies in 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.

I welcome your feedback and comments below or by email to

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights, a subsidiary of Retail Doctor Group, which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale. “Innovative consumer insights are vital to the development and implementation of a truly differentiated brand strategy. How we as humans interact with brands in a meaningful and loyal way underpins the growth and profitability of all businesses.”


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