Ever find yourself completely lost at an Ikea store wishing you had brought a bag of breadcrumbs so you could retrace your steps to find a way out of the retail labyrinth? It’s enough to drive you to madness (just like those novel-length, wordless furniture assembly guides they produce, where you end up with extra hardware and you wonder: did I build this correctly?). It is not uncommon to see people of every age wandering aimlessly among the aisles with a glazed look in their eyes. Where’s the freaking exit?
This abomination of retail design, that exasperates millions of consumers each year, has a name. It is known at the Gruen effect of Gruen transfer. The Gruen effect is defined as the feeling of confusion and distraction experienced by a consumer when placed in a shopping center or store that is confusing and maze-like, forcing the consumer to be exposed to more products (displayed in an enticing manner or in large quantities) and thus be more susceptible to make impulse buys. This form of psychological manipulation is named after the Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who designed the very first open-air shopping mall (Northland Mall in Southfield, Michigan in 1954) and the first enclosed shopping mall (Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota in 1956). Ironically, Gruen was very much opposed to this type of behavior manipulation. Gruen designed some of the first window shops filled with beautiful, dazzling displays designed to lure customers into the store. But Gruen stopped there. Retailers like Ikea, department stores, and grocery chains took the Gruen effect to an entirely different level. He believed that his ideas were “bastardized.”
According to research, 50% of purchases are unplanned. Journalist Carlos Waters investigated how Ikea mastered the Gruen effect for Vox. He writes: “Ikea has mastered the Gruen effect using story layout to influence customer behavior. From the moment you enter an Ikea, layout designers nudge you onto a specific path through a maze of products. That path is the least direct route to the register. By the time you’ve finally picked up a shopping cart and selected your first item, you’ve considered the possibilities of purchasing many of the items on display. Researchers have found that increased exposure leads to impulse buys.” Vox presents a video developed by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to show the path of a typical consumer in an Ikea store. When you see the path, you cannot help of thinking of a hungry lab rat desperately finding its way through a maze to find the desired piece of cheese.
So the next time you find yourself in a retail maze and feel exasperated you can focus your anger and curse “that damned Gruen effect!”
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For further reading: https://www.vox.com/2018/10/17/17989684/ikea-gruen-effect-unplanned-purchases