Friday 25 April 2014

Coercive Atmospherics

I'm currently making my way through Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion: Why We Listen To What "They" Say and just finished the chapter on atmospherics, which I found very interesting. In this post, I'll summarize my favourite parts from the chapter.

The basic idea behind coercive atmospherics is that the details of a location's architecture, design, mood, and general environment play a part in how people act in that location. Just as restaurant owners use psychological research to design their menus and set prices, retailers are likewise highly motivated to ensure the many elements of their stores are designed so as to create an environment maximizing consumption.

A retail location's atmosphere can be altered in many ways. One very important element is music. Grocery stores play music at a slow tempo that makes customers shop more slowly and buy more food. Fast food restaurants play fast tempo music that makes people chew and leave faster. Cheap accessories such as jewelry sell better in environments with loud music because customers spend less time investigating the quality of the product. Department stores get customers to make 17% more purchases by playing Muzak. This music is often produced to be background noise, influencing the customer below the level of his or her awareness. 

Scent is used far less commonly but can lead to similar effects. A department store in Japan intentionally emits an unpleasant smell in its complaints department to drive customers away. Victoria's Secret uses potpourri scents to enhance feelings of femininity in their customers. Studies have also shown that when casinos are scented with specific chemicals, their slot machines get used 45% more.

Far more important than the smell and perhaps even the sound of a store, is how it's visually designed. Casinos, grocery markets, and malls noticeably contain no windows and don't use clocks. They want customers to lose track of time and lengthen their stay.

Proximity to other locations is also a significant determinant of where people go to shop. This is one of the main functions of malls: they bring many stores into one building. These buildings are deliberately designed to be as confusing as possible so that people get lost in them. This maximizes the amount of time in which the consumer stays through the mall, leads to consumers wandering by more stores than they expected to, and produces a child-like confusion in the customer that has been shown to increase their obedience to authority and likeliness to consume. Major "anchors" such as JC Penney and Macy's are typically positioned no more than 600 feet away from each other because that is considered the maximum distance the average American wants to walk. These anchor stores are also never within sight of one another. The mall designers want customers to have to pass through the entire mall to get from one anchor to the other.

Mannequins are used because the human eye is attracted to the human form. Escalators and revolving doors create movement, which contributes to an atmosphere conducive to consumption. Aisles are made wide, especially around expensive items, because this has been showed to slow human traffic. Doorsteps are not used in front of the entrance because "No hindrance should be offered to people who may drift into a store."

Although most small stores probably pay absolutely no attention to the psychological literature, global brands like Nike, Disney, Macy's, Wal-Mart, Target, McDonald's, and the like absolutely do. The smaller stores then copy what they see, out of habit, without knowing the science behind these decisions. Off the top of your head, it's very easy to notice conventions of various kinds of stores. For example, almost all fast food restaurants have a similar design, layout, and process. Why should they all happen to have exactly the same seats?

These chairs are deliberately designed to be uncomfortable so that people don't loiter for too long at their tables. Fast food restaurants are constructed to get customers in and then get them out quickly. 

Why are so many antique shops so messy and cluttered?

Again, it isn't a coincidence. Atmospherics experts coach antique dealers to keep their stores unorganized and chaotic in order to produce the feeling in customers that they have stumbled upon buried treasure. The dealer is instructed to come off as unable to keep track of his or her stock's worth to allow room for customers to discover underpriced gems for themselves. Do most antique dealers know this? I doubt it. And yet the cluttered antique store is a recognizable trope, probably because new antique dealers unknowingly copy the conventions of their predecessors.

Using architecture as a tool for influence is an old technique. It used to be that no building in a village was ever made taller than the local church. This was to signify the church's importance and dominance. Cathedrals are well-known for their splendour and how they inspire awe even in the non-religious. The buildings were tailor-made to evoke these feelings. Many architectural techniques that went into them were kept secret. Inside cathedrals are architectural structures called "triforiums" - arches and pillars in the air that seem like doorways to nowhere - whose purpose is to evoke fear and remind church-goers of the mysterious knowledge possessed by secret cabals.

The next time you walk into a store, notice the various elements that you normally take for granted. Why does this corner store look like all other corner stores, whereas all pharmacies look like other pharmacies? Why are the signs up high and not at eye level? Why is there little to no merchandise around the immediate entrance of the store? Why is the cash in the centre of the store compared to at the front or the back? These decisions are very likely guided by commerce.


  1. Do stores of a given type have similar layouts because they are taking advantage of us or because they have converged on a design that is optimal for consumers, workers, and shareholders?

    Why are seats at fast-food restaurants hard? Maybe because hard seats are more durable, cheaper, and easier to clean than soft cushions. Cheaper seats mean cheaper food, which is a plus for price-sensitive fast-food eaters. Even if fast-food restaurants try to discourage people from lingering, that may be to consumers' advantage. Otherwise fewer people would be able to find a place to sit.

    Why are so many antique shops so messy and cluttered? Maybe because they contain a wide variety of goods that are hard to organize the way Walmart can organize its goods.

    Why are the signs up high and not at eye level? So you can see them from farther away.

    Why is there little to no merchandise around the immediate entrance of the store? Because that's where the checkout lines are. Also, there's more foot traffic around entrances and exits, and goods placed there would get in people's way.

    Consumer sovereignty—the idea that consumers' preferences determine what goods and services are produced (and how stores are organized)—is an alternative interpretation of many of the phenomena you mentioned. It's hard to know whether it's the consumer or the producer who is calling the shots.

    1. That's true but I don't think that perspective is always the most useful. Customer preferences arent intrinsically valued by retailers. It happens that satisfying customer preferences is often a way to succeed as a business but in situations where commerce is in conflict with customer preferences, commerce wins.

      To add support to the coercive interpretation, Rushkoff cites quotes from actual business execs, retailers, designers, and marketers (Paco Underhill, Theodore Dreiser, Gordon Thompson, Michael Ovitz, Frank Baum, Tim Magill) and relevant academic journals and magazines (Journal of Retailing, Journal of Footwear Management, The Dry Goods Economist, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Puget Sound Business Journal, Hotel and Motel Management, Feed Magazine, Chain Store Age). The research behind these retail decisions exists and major companies seem to be hiring people that are well-versed in this research.

      Check out Underhill's company Envirosell:
      Their major clients include Burger King, McDonald's, Nestle, Mars, Cadbury, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Danone, Kraft, Hewlett Packard, Unilever, Nokia, Microsoft, Radio Shack, Adidas, Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble, L'Oreal, Marlboro, HSBC, Citibank, and Exxon.

      I also know for a fact that major film studios utilize eye-tracking, biometrics, brain scanning, focus groups, surveys, analytics, and other research methods to maximize the commercial value of their products (whether or not this makes their output better according to audience preferences). The Harvard Business School case study on Warner Bros says as much. Also, here's proof that they work with Schlesinger Associates, a lab for audience testing:

      In so far as this kind of research increases profits, it will be used by those that can afford it.