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Science & Environment

Retailers Use Time To Their Advantage; More Impulse Products Sold

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Shopping is a form of psychological warfare. The displays, the music, the freebies, are all organized to influence what shoppers do. Now, a report about a new marketing tool, and NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain. Welcome.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the new tool?

VEDANTAM: Well, this one is a sneaky one, Ari, because it's hiding in plain sight. The secret tool is time.

SHAPIRO: How is time a marketing tool?

VEDANTAM: Well, it turns out consumers make more impulsive purchases the longer they spend in a store. This is research by Timothy Gilbride, Jeffrey Inman and Karen Melville Stilley. They tracked the behavior of about 300 shoppers buying nearly 10,000 products in a southwestern city. Before the shoppers went in the store, the researchers asked them, what are you planning to buy? Shoppers were also given a scanner and told to scan the barcode of every item they put into their carts. The researchers then analyzed people's receipts to see what they actually ended up buying. And they also analyzed the order in which customers bought things. The scanner data told them when something was bought. And what the researchers find is that the likelihood of unplanned and impulsive purchases shoots up the longer you spend in a store. In other words, if you go into a store, you have a shopping list, you stick to the shopping list, 20 minutes later the shopping list is out the window. You're just picking stuff up off the shelf.

SHAPIRO: So does that mean I'm going to find speed bumps the next time I'm go into a drugstore or a supermarket?

VEDANTAM: You know, it's unclear how much marketers already know about this. But for retailers, the implication certainly is that you should stock products that are likely to be impulse purchases deeper into your store. So put that three...

SHAPIRO: Cake in the back.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, the three-layered chocolate cake should go deep into the store. For customers, the picture is more mixed. It's not actually clear that unplanned purchases are necessarily bad. Maybe you're going to enjoy those unplanned purchases, but if you want to stick to your budget...

SHAPIRO: Then go "Supermarket Sweep" style - run through the aisles.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly what I do, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam who joins us regularly to talk about social science research. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.