Since most of us are doing our Christmas shopping this week, we should know that stores are subtly influencing our purchases.

In a store called Once Famous, researchers study customers from behind one-way mirrors?but they?re not looking for shoplifters. While the store works like a regular retail outlet and makes a small profit, it?s really a laboratory for the company FAME, which uses social science techniques to study consumers’ shopping habits for major retailers, including Target and Marshall Fields. A blinking light at the store entrance warns customers they’re being monitored for research purposes.

According to the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, 70% of all purchases are impulse buys. The longer a store can keep a customer browsing?even if it?s only for an extra minute or two?the more likely they are to make a sale. FAME explored ways of drawing shoppers into “dead zones,” which are areas of a store that customers tend to stay away from. They found that displaying different items of the same color together drew shoppers to the back of the store. Red was especially effective and passed what FAME president Tina Wilcox calls the “squint test” ? “If you squint your eyes, whatever you pick up in that squint is pretty much what registers when they’re shopping,” she says. Target now uses this method for TV and print advertising.

FAME has found that U.S. customers have natural tendency to start shopping on the right, while in the U.K., it?s the opposite: shoppers gravitate towards the left side of a store. Researchers think it might be because they drive on the left. They?ve discovered that the two sexes shop differently. Men keep their distance from an item, asking questions about its construction and features. “?The way they would shop for a car,” Wilcox says. Women are more likely to touch items and react personally with them, since their buying decisions are more emotional.

FAME found that women often “visit” products they like three or four times before finally buying them, which is something men don?t do. During these visits, before they actually buy an expensive item, retailers have a chance to sell them other, less expensive things.

Researcher Bill Abrams of Housecalls Inc. studies how consumers use products in their own homes. “People on their own turf tend to tell more of the truth and to reveal more, because they feel safer in their own surroundings,” he says. For a recent study for Colgate-Palmolive, Housecalls went to the homes of popular teenage girls to how they used underarm deodorant, which is a $1 billion-a-year market. They wanted to know what kind of deodorant they bought, how many swipes they used, and whether they took it with them when they went out. They discovered that teens want their own brand and don?t want to use what one girl called “an older woman’s” deodorant. They?ll also use a different scent each day, depending on their mood. You may have noticed the results of these studies: in the last few years, special deodorants for teens have come out in a wide range of fragrances.

Want to avoid being watched? Shop on our internet store! Find out what the New Year will bring from Nostradamus 2003-2025: A History of the Future.

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