How to use retail psychology to boost your sales

20 September 2023, 12:00 PM
  • Learn how to create a multisensory shopping experience for your customers with expert advice on experiential retail
How to use retail psychology to boost your sales

Have you walked into a shop that feels stiff, uninviting and detached? You don’t need to be an expert in consumer psychology to spot when something’s off.

In fine food retail, Andrew Busby, founder of Retail Reflections, tells Speciality Food, “It’s all about creating a truly memorable experience, and that means multisensory. When we’re shopping, we’re using our senses – but especially if it’s fine food.”

Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, agrees that if retailers are selling a higher-end product, they need to have a memorable shopping experience. “Ensuring a great multisensory experience is really important for all retailers, but especially for those at the premium/luxury end of the market.” 

The power of sensory experiences is greater than you might think. “After, all, in blind taste tests in many categories, consumers are unable to discriminate products based on price, nor pick out their favourite brand,” Charles says. “What this tells you is just how much of the experience comes from everything else: from branding, packaging. All it takes is to stick a drink in a heavier bottle or can and immediately the consumer will say that it tastes better, no matter whether we are talking about a soft drink or a quality wine.”

Just as product packaging influences how shoppers feel about a brand, the atmosphere of your store will shape customers’ opinions about your shop. “Behavioural science teaches us about the biases people rely on to make the decision-making process easier, and retailers have the opportunity to design their atmospheres in a way that utilises these biases to influence customer behaviour in their desired way,” explains Melanie Fulker, chief customer officer at Startle Music, which uses behavioural science to create music solutions for brands.

“A very simple example of this is by influencing mood, since moods interfere with our opinions and are powerful drivers of action. Research has even shown that when people are in a positive mood, this increases how receptive they are to advertising and their ability to recall adverts,” Melanie says. “By building a retail atmosphere that therefore encourages positive moods and emotions, we can improve the effectiveness of our marketing efforts.”

How to create a multisensory experience

“The world of sensory marketing has really exploded in recent years,” Charles says. Farm shops and delis have a natural edge here thanks to their use of cheese and butchery counters, an area that many larger retailers have pulled out of. “These create an environment which goes beyond just a self-service experience and allow direct interaction between the customers and store staff which is vital for the experience,” Andrew says. Not to mention the sights and smells emanating from display cases.

At the deli counter and beyond, when you create displays or update the merchandising in your shop, remember to cater for all the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.


Andrew recalls a recent visit to Kavanagh’s, an Irish-owned family business in Belsize Park, which utilises shelves that curve out towards the customer to display fresh produce. “Very simple, doesn’t require technology but very effective – a great example of visual merchandising that creates a very welcoming environment for the customer,” he says. 

Colours are another important visual element, and retailers can use one simple concept to make their products look better, according to Charles: contrast. “A product, no matter what it is, can be made to look much more vibrant by placing it against a background of a contrasting colour. You can make your produce look so much more appealing by using contrasting colours, be it the greenery in the red meat counter, or the blue of Barilla pasta that makes the yellow pasta look oh so much more radiant.”


Charles highlights another tried and tested trick: “Play classical music in store, as time and again this has been shown to lead people to spend more as it is associated with notions of class/quality/expense.”

If that’s not your shop’s vibe, however, don’t fear. Melanie says there are a range of ways music can influence customer behaviour. “Studies have shown that everything from the speed of movement or time spent in a store to the origin of wine purchased can be impacted through the songs played in the background,” she tells Speciality Food

“Of course, the change in behaviour is largely dictated by the type of music played. As experts in music and behavioural science, Startle looks at numerous aspects of music to curate playlists with intention to elicit specific emotions or behaviours. This includes anything from the genre and tempo to the lyrical sentiment and valence (positivity or negativity) of songs.”


With scent being a huge trigger for memories and emotions, it’s a crucial element to consider. “Where [sensory marketing] works especially well is when it is the scent of the actual products that speak for themselves, rather than the synthetic-smelling scents that are sometimes used,” Charles says. “It is striking how some chocolate chains, when you walk into their stores, smell of nothing (because all the products are hermetically sealed). This is crazy once you recognize that chocolate and coffee are amongst the most desirable scents.”

If you have a café on site, you’re sitting on a gold mine: coffee, chocolate pastries, freshly baked bread…the options for tempting customers are endless!


If there’s one sense you’re not already catering to in your shop, it’s likely to be touch. However, Charles advises that forgetting touch is missing out on an opportunity to secure sales. “Encourage the customer to pick up the produce,” he says. “We are all that much more likely to buy something in store once we have picked it up/handled it.”

For some, Covid feels like a distant memory, but the pandemic changed shopping habits in meaningful ways, Charles warns. “These days, so many of us consumers have become so afraid of touching the merchandise, it may require an actual sign suggestion: ‘Touch me’.”


When it comes to fine food, the proof is in the pudding. Your customers might not consider paying a premium for storecupboard staples or even artisan products like farmhouse cheese – until they taste the difference, that is.

Sampling is an incredibly important sales tool, and we recently explored the benefits of sampling at the cheese counter, but you can apply these tips throughout your store. 

Creating memorable experiences

When all these sensory elements are combined, they help to create an unforgettable shopping experience.

“Always remember that whilst price, value and service should always underpin the offering, what differentiates it, ie attracts and retains customers, is a great experience,” Andrew says. “Make it multi-dimensional – live working kitchens, juice bars. Take every opportunity to connect and engage with the customer – for example, Waitrose at Coal Drops Yard at Kings Cross has a cookery school.” 

Look for inspiration throughout the high street. Charles says, “Lush cosmetics does a great job by not packaging many of their products in store, thus allowing the customers to get a rich olfactory experience, and before you know it one of the assistants is suggesting ‘Touch this, smell that, hold out your hands.’ It is a real multisensory encounter.”

3 psychology terms to know – and how to use them in your shop

Melanie at Startle Music tells Speciality Food three must-know behavioural science terms and how retailers can use them to their advantage.

1. Expectancy Theory

“A retail space is your staging area, your best point of differentiation and brand distinctiveness, and fine food retailers have an expectation to live up to. Expectancy Theory tells us that people’s experiences are strongly influenced by what they expect to experience. 

“If you can create a fantastic experience in your physical spaces, not only will it more likely become the experience your customers feel like they received, but also it safeguards you against any time you didn’t quite hit the mark. 

“The curation of a perfect atmosphere is always susceptible to hiccups, but as long as you’ve put in the work to imbue your customers with the ideal experience, you’re far more likely to be unscathed if, on one occasion, you don’t quite deliver. What’s important here is a meaningful intention to create the same experience consistently each time, but not just any good experience.”

2. The Peak-End Rule

“The Peak-End Rule tells us that people are most likely to evaluate an experience by the sum of the most stand-out moments (the peaks) and its conclusion (the end). The truth is that it’s too cognitively taxing to consider all factors of an experience, so the efficiency of our brains instead decides to just zoom in on a few factors and then maximise those out to be the full experience. This is a concept that often makes one retail experience stand out from the rest. 

“I recently visited a grocery retailer with my two-year-old son. After a somewhat stressful packing experience at the till, the cashier offered him a sticker. Immediately, it put a smile on my son’s face, eased my anxiety of a toddler meltdown in the store, and created a memorable ‘peak’ that I’ll go on to associate with that brand. This is a great example of a simple and very low-cost activation retailers can bring into their atmospheres to stand out in consumers’ minds and create a lasting impression.”

3. The Von Restorff Effect

“Possibly one of the most easily understandable biases in behavioural science is the Von Restorff effect, which essentially dictates that the chances of something being remembered and recalled are increased the more distinct they are from their peers or competition. It’s a bias in favour of remembering the unusual. 

“One of the reasons this bias is so powerful is that it doesn’t need to incur a large cost. What it does require is imagination and creativity – the untapped resource in many brands.

“Here are some practical tips retailers can use to achieve this:
• “Look outside of the retail industry and your competitors for ideas. You can’t be distinctive if you’re looking at the same stuff as the brands around you.
• “Do the ‘blindfold’ thought experiment – if someone was placed in one of your stores without knowing the brand, would they know it’s you? If not, you’re not delivering on a distinctive branded atmosphere.
• “Seek surprising solutions that are easy to implement. Just one creative and distinctive action could be revolutionary (think stickers for kids at the checkout, or free coffees with any purchase). Big idea, easy to implement, business defining results.”

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