So, let's use Walmart as an example. You walk into Walmart, and someone with inadequate Social Security and a stolen pension greets you. You want to buy a loaf of bread and some green peppers, so you head for the produce area first. En route, you dodge jutting kiosks covered in seasonal items, are steered past the candy aisle and the deli case, and finally reach the grabbable produce. Bananas, apples; possibly oranges or strawberries in tidy cases, with accompanying imitation shortbread; some innocuous bakery pies that don't seem to belong; prepackaged salads; all these things greet you.
You pick up the green peppers and walk past the front of the store, moving briskly, going for the bread. A massive stack of colorful bestselling hardbacks screams the names of authors and, occasionally, titles. Calendars and trinkets nestle at their edges.
You reach the bread. After deciphering which of ninety-seven varieties you want, you head for the front. You're back in the cavernous front area, surrounded by a casino of lights and displays, all subtly complementing the baby blue background. Rows of impulse items and celebrity pulp fiction rags guard the registers. Unable to find the right size of the discontinued Tic Tac flavor you were hoping for, you watch a cashier struggle to get an item out of some guy's cart under the attached dual baby seat, and decide to give in. Leaving your bread and green peppers on top of a waist-high freezer devoted to several varieties of Pepsi, and one of Coke that someone obviously misplaced, you squeak across the messy rubber mat and head for the exit. Carts crash. A different door greeter strides by, smiling merrily and wishing you a fine day. Legions of security scanners wait to probe you.
Security and Steering
Why is it like this? Consider the elements from your trip to the store, above:
...someone with inadequate Social Security and a stolen pension greets you.
Policymakers know that, on aggregate, target populations are more likely to purchase something at all, and to purchase more of something, and to feel a connection to the facility, based on that greeting. Even if you despise the idea of being accosted at the door by someone who doesn't know anything about you, and even if you understand the economics driving door greeters, the effect still holds. You're also less likely to shoplift--why? Because you feel watched. Once someone has identified you, you feel part of the process. Public speakers know this; K-12 instructors are taught this; police and private security, and the owners of small businesses know how important the greeting is.
En route, you dodge jutting kiosks covered in seasonal items, are steered past the candy aisle and the deli case, and finally reach the grabbable produce. Bananas, apples; possibly oranges or strawberries in tidy cases, with accompanying imitation shortbread; some innocuous bakery pies that don't seem to belong; prepackaged salads...
It's a by-now ancient marketing trope that putting crap in your way is a great way to get you to buy crap. Staple items like milk, meat, bread, and cheese are dispersed to the perimeters of stores so that you have to walk by other stuff to get there. Even within retail departments--produce, electronics, housewares--the real products are positioned behind a vanguard of higher margin junk.
A massive stack of colorful bestselling hardbacks screams the names of authors and, occasionally, titles. Calendars and trinkets nestle at their edges.
The books and bookstore-themed goodies, besides helping use food dispersal to push the publishing industry, and turn nice profits, are important for the greater meaning of the store itself. For the feeling of a one-stop complete-shop, even a smaller supermarket can create the illusion of a full day's sustenance and entertainment by adding a few periodicals and DVDs to the food. The addition of a running television, even if not for sale, and even if few (or no) people actually come to the location to watch television, is an extension of the original periodical theory: by putting infotainment out where it can be seen, customers feel connected to culture. Going to the store isn't just about buying food, or else people might just buy food--going to the store is supposed to be about "participating."
Marketers know that, if a stock market analysis show is playing in the background--even without sound--customers will feel wealthier and more likely to spend more money. They know that, if action movie previews are playing in the background, customers will feel tougher and more confident, more likely to make sudden, empowering decisions. Actually selling a copy of the Wall Street Journal or Madison Woo-Grisham's latest thriller is just frosting.
You reach the bread. After deciphering which of ninety-seven varieties you want...
Variety creates the illusion of plenty. A poor person with just enough money for one loaf of bread sees an aisle of bread and feels that society is intact--food is plentiful. Just being around it creates this effect. On a deeper level, variety bombards the customer with information. Too much to process even for a bread industry representative (really). Surrounded by excessive choice, it is a relief to finally make a choice, fork over the money, and be done with the test. In a society conditioned by K-12 testing, where options must be chosen and there is always at least one right answer and a final grade, choosing the bread you came for is absolutely effing necessary.
This is why packaging is regularly changed industry-wide, even on industry-leading items, when it would seem, at first blush, that it would be a marketing benefit to leave the packaging "familiar" and attract customers through routine: the net effect is more important than the individual effect. It's worth it to lose the sale of ten thousand loaves of bread because a lazy, formerly-regular customer didn't pick your old packaging out of the mess, because another ten thousand different customers will eventually come your way--later that same day.
Conventional consumer wisdom, promulgated by industry theorists, says otherwise: it claims that the fight for each customer is important. The aggregate effect of ever-shifting, blaring packaging types amongst too many identical-yet-completely-different options, though, creates the sense of powerlessness, and gives satiation in the form of merely choosing a product--any product.
Since the producing companies are owned and controlled by the same stockholders anyway, the "compete for each sale" mentality is an insulting cultural joke.
(The over-saturation-of-choice model works in more than the consumer-food realm: political parties know this, which is why they hold glorious events where candidates are treated as serious even though the intern at the political desk for Kiowa News knows there's no chance eight out of ten of them will be allowed near even a "Vice" slot. The DLC keeps pretending that Al Sharpton might be a viable candidate, while the media looks intelligent for "predicting" (ha, ha) that the primary battle will really come down to Clinton and Obama. The RNC trots out Santorum for another go, yada yada. It's such a relief when the choice is finally made, and the Party knows who to choose for president.)
You're back in the cavernous front area, surrounded by a casino of lights and displays, all subtly complementing the baby blue background.
"Casino" is the operative word here. Showmen and interrogators know that darkness, silence, lights, and noise all shake the nerves when properly applied, creating a sensation of powerlessness. Carnies and casino operators play off this, and the front of the retail store mimics it, subjecting customers to the register procedure. Disembodied voices boom from overhead, loud beeps come from every direction, and carts crash. Loud colors and jarring visual patterns keep the mind searching for a safe haven, which becomes the "islands" of the registers. There, you can be approved by a piece of the giant, noisy machine, and granted formal permission to leave. For decades, marketers have designed retail entrances and exits to create a feeling of anxiety and guilt in customers who walk out without purchasing anything. Slipping around the registers and through the security scanners without the shield of a receipt is supposed to produce the feel of being a shoplifter, and encourage customers to buy something and receive a receipt for safe passage out.
From a security installment perspective, controlling exits is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Funneling people through mazes contributes to the feeling of powerlessness and ups sales, and from a possibly positive standpoint, reduces theft by concentrating the riskiest target area--the exit. Fire escapes had to be mandated by government after many massive, deadly retail and warehouse fires, because it is so in the interests of shopowners to keep customers under control by limiting their ability to exit and enter the store anywhere other than designated access points. Signs scream warning that a Very Loud Noise will punish you, and you'll go to jail, if you try to leave the building in an unapproved way.
Again, naive conclusions ("conventional wisdom") are contradicted by marketers. In theory, a quiet, calm store would draw more customers, who would feel soothed by the contrast, and prefer the calmer shopping experience. The cavernous maw of the department store, like that of the galaxies at night, skyscrapers downtown, or the ocean striking the shore, creates a sense of powerlessness; a desire for submission to avoid destruction--and is, therefore, more profitable, resulting in more sales and less critical takes on the stuff being purchased.
Yes, look at the magazines and the impulse items by the register. Astounding drops in the sales of disproportionately expensive candy and trashy magazines occur when the candy is not available for the grabbing by the register. Yada, yada. "Impulse items" has become enough of a household term that it's probably no longer a contentious suggestion.
It's All A Coincidence
In the vicinity of 3K Walmart supercenters squat across America at any given time. Walmart supercenters aside--and Walmart's own un-super derivations aside--most retail facilities, and primarily most large ones, follow this model.
Over decades, marketers have spent billions of dollars studying the effects of store layout and product positioning on customers. From blatant to subtle, changing by the year and the season, they reorient the face of billions of dollars in commercial real estate, from parking lots to soda aisles to backrooms. Powerful, incredibly wealthy men in dark suits hold serious meetings about how to get .03% more sales of gum in the Midwest region. Like ripples in a pond, new insights about what will produce more consumption spread throughout the world, assimilating local cultures toward the original end.
Individual store managers and employees generally buy into it. They believe that a door greeter is there to make you feel special and ensure that you "find everything you want." Average customers feel that the door greeter is there to "make them more likely to buy stuff." They believe the loud beeps at the checkout are necessary to scan items.
...they believe that the prodigious product "variety" and the screaming packaging are attempts to make the product "look nice" and "stand out." If they're really a thoughtful person, they might even conclude that all the noisy options are the result of harsh competition for sales among different brands. They might suggest that Walmarts all look the same, or big-box retail stores are all designed in the same essential way, because "it works" or "that's what people want."
These levels of insight--that "they want you to buy stuff"--are ultimately marginal at best. The show argument is similar to the pretension that "high income" and "low income" is any kind of realistic battleground with regard to taxes. Here's how it works:
Earnest store employee: We want to make your shopping experience the best it can be!
Company spokesperson: We want to make a fair profit while serving our community and providing goods that people need.
Simplistic analysis of the sinister: All they want is money.
Of course they want money, and the claims of the company representatives are as easy to shoot down as a Fox News commentator--but the "they just want money" explanation is such a tiny piece of the truth that it might as well not be true.
Walmart is just one place; the Republican Party to the Democratic Party of Costco, or the wacky extremist to the tragic centrism of Target. We'll go into this more later, but for now, stick with the sense of monotonous powerlessness.