Mark Cantrell, Author

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News: Research Reveals Supermarkets Can Remote Control Our Walking Speed

Posted by Mark Cantrell on April 29, 2017 at 6:10 AM

Consumerbots rising: try not to be a drone

New research claims supermarkets can control our walking speed when shopping, writes Mark Cantrell, so where does that leave our pretensions of being switched-on consumers and savvy citizens?

WE might like to think of ourselves as sophisticated consumers, smart shoppers in control of our retail destinies, but a study by Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University, suggests we're not really in the driving seat at all.

Supermarkets, it seems, are able to control our walking speed when shopping, the research claims, by something so simple as changing the pattern of markings on the floor.

Are we really so easily led? Well, retailers – and their marketing commissars – spend a tidy sum on finding ways to manipulate us to their advantage, whether through flashy advertising to the placing of products, so why not manage our pace by 'remote control' too?

By altering lines and patterns, retail managers persuade customers to walk at the 'ideal' pace, throughout their shopping trip, either quicker or slower, to best meet the requirements of the supermarket. Of course, it's about optimising your buying habits, as the leader of the study explained.

“Managing the flow of customers can be a challenge for retailers. When customers rush through the store, they miss interesting products and buy less. Spending too much time in front of the shelves can lead to annoying congestion in the aisles, which also leads to declining sales,” said project leader, Bram Van den Bergh.

“It has been known for some time that walking speed plays an important role in shoppers’ purchasing decisions. But until now it was unclear what retail managers could do to influence the pace of their customers. This research was set up to find out how they might achieve this.”

The research reveals that closely spaced, horizontal lines on the floor slow the pace at which shoppers walk down an aisle, encouraging them to browse. Widen the gaps between the lines and shoppers move more quickly.

Marks on the floor alter the perception of the length of the aisle with more frequent lines making shoppers believe that the end is farther away, so they instinctively slow down. If the lines are further apart, shoppers speed up because they think the end is nearer.

The researchers observed 4,000 people in a series of experiments that were conducted both in-store and in a lab. If the lines were 20 inches apart, they found it created the optical illusion that the end of the aisle was further away. Shoppers then tended to slow their pace.

In subsequent tests, slower shoppers were found to be much better at recalling what products they had seen than those who sped through.

The researchers related their findings to something called goal gradient theory: when an individual is closer to their goal, in this case the end of the aisle, they will walk faster to reach it.

In one sense, it's a fascinating insight into the ways retail businesses seek to maximise their harvest of our hard-earned pennies; in another sense, it's chilling to ponder quite what influence this kind of behaviour management has on us all as citizens in civil society.

These days, so much of our social lives takes place in the controlled environments of retail centres, be they supermarkets or retailed leisure outlets; even our traditional public spaces are becoming increasingly controlled environments.

As it is, the research is perhaps a timely reminder of an uncomfortable reality: we are more of a herd animal, corralled and controlled, than we might like to believe. Consider the RSM study, then, as an exploration of one tiny aspect of a highly specialised form of animal husbandry.

So where does that leave the notion of consumer power? If supermarkets can really manipulate us so readily using this kind of subliminal 'remote control', where does it leave the notion that as consumers we can effect any kind of change in society?

Well, some perhaps. Consumer boycotts and protests have worked in the past. But stampedes happen; even the most experienced experts in animal husbandry sometimes lose control of the herd.

When it comes to effecting any kind of long-lasting and fundamental change, though, can it really be achieved by a creature that is so readily persuaded to change its walking speed by the spacing of some lines on the floor?

If supermarkets can optimise our walking pace to their own advantage, you have to wonder what else they – and others – are getting up to inside our heads...

Well, it's something for us to ponder while we chew the cud.




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