Design : The Psychology of Colour in Retail

Retail Psychology in the Battle for Customers

Desso has been designing and manufacturing carpet for almost 80 years, with a significant presence in South Africa. The company has factories in Europe and its products can be found in commercial and public buildings worldwide. Andrew Sibley, Desso's sales director, argues that the business of retail design is more now about psychology.

The current slowdown in consumer spending has particularly affected the retail sector. However, this most competitive and dynamic of sectors is fighting back with some innovative design strategies at the cutting-edge of experimental psychology.

In just a few decades, the sector has changed out of all recognition and, driven by fierce competition, has been at the forefront of new marketing concepts such as brand management and customer loyalty. Now, in a period of economic uncertainty, retailers are adopting another weapon - the manipulation of our minds.

It's a developing science but one that retailers are increasingly relying on because what matters, particularly in a downturn, is footfall through the door and converting browsers into customers. Parting us from our money has never been more important.

Needless to say, it's a science that varies between men and women. For example, 65% of men who take a pair of jeans into a changing room to try them on will buy them, while only 25% of women will make that purchase. Likewise, a women shopping with a man will spend less time in a store than shopping by herself or with a child.

The trick, as retailers know, is to first entice a shopper inside their store and to then make them linger. The longer they linger, the more they are likely to buy. That's why supermarkets stock their most popular staple items like bread and milk at the back of their stores - forcing customers to walk further and pass other products on the way. It works: research suggests that over 50% of supermarket purchases are bought on impulse.

However, modern research-based and observational techniques have gone much further in trying to understand how we shop. For example, a New York retail consultancy recently discovered that we walk around shops in the same way as we drive a car. If we drive on the right, we tend to keep to the right when walking down sidewalks or supermarket aisles. The British and Australians, conversely, tend to turn left when entering a store. It's a branch of scientific observation that now has a name: environmental psychology, and its proponents claim that it will revolutionise the design of shops and public areas.

Sounds unlikely? Well, putting the theory into practice, it means that in a well-designed airport travellers walking to their gates should find fast-food outlets on their left and gift shops on their right. The mind game being played is that, if a traveller is hungry, he or she is quite happy to cross a lane of pedestrian traffic to buy something to eat. However, they'll rarely do so to make an impulse gift purchase.

Some retailers who have bought into the new psychology have taken it to extremes. Samsung, for example, has experimented with what it calls coercive atmospherics in its flagship store in Manhattan - pumping in the smell of honeydew lemon and constantly and subtly changing the lighting scheme to create a tropical and relaxed atmosphere.

That level of sophisticated manipulation does raise ethical issues but, as an overall strategy, it's no more than retailers have been doing to us for many years - appealing indirectly to our subconscious minds. What's changed in recent years has been retailers' understanding of psychology and its role in the sales process.

It's a fast-developing, and still experimental, branch of psychology although the Samsung approach has been endorsed by a scientific study at Washington State University. It found that, in a clothing store, when "feminine scents" like vanilla were introduced, sales of women's clothing increased. The same was true for men's clothing when "male" scents such as rose maroc were used.

Leaving experimental science behind, the one major psychological influence that all retailers can - and do - make use of is colour. Colour can be everything to a successful store, if the palettes work well across the whole shop and complement other elements such as product displays and lighting. The point, according to retail designers, isn't about creating the most beautiful shop, but one that has coherence.

Colour is central to coherence because we react instinctively to it. Red means "stop" and green means "go." Our brains are hot-wired to respond to colour and, for modern retailers, the trick to using colour is to understand both its physiological and psychological influences.

We react fundamentally to colours because they help us make sense of our surroundings; indeed, some 80% of information reaches our brains via our eyes. It means that we are instinctively more comfortable when colours remind us of something familiar - for example, a soft shade of blue triggers associations with the sky and a psychological sense of calm. Prisons and hospitals now use colour to influence the behaviour of inmates and patients.

In children, in contrast, those colour associations are still being formed, which is why youngsters respond best to bright primary colours. Those bold colours are the colour of most toys, clothes and children's books - and the colour schemes of the most successful kids' retailers.

Colour psychology perhaps explains why people are allegedly more relaxed in a green room and why weightlifters perform better in blue gyms. It's certainly the reason why some paint manufacturers now have colour cards setting out the therapeutic aspects of each colour, and why some cosmetic companies have introduced 'colour therapy' ranges.

We all share similar responses to colour, although some cultural variations exist. For example, white is the colour of marriage in western societies but is the colour of death in China. In Brazil, purple is the colour of death. Yellow is sacred to the Chinese, but signifies sadness in Greece and jealousy in France. People from tropical countries respond most favourably to warm colours; people from northern climates prefer cooler colours.

Our heart rate and blood pressure rise when we look at intense reds; conversely, we can become tired or anxious by looking at large areas of bright whites or greys. In a retail environment, understanding those responses can be crucial to enticing that customer inside, and then enticing open their wallet or purse.

To make things more complicated, the success of a retail store isn't so much influenced by the chosen colour scheme but by how their target customers react to it. Is the store aimed at teenagers? Thirty-somethings? Senior citizens? The success of the store depends of how the customer reacts to both the products on display and the sales environment. Younger people like the energy of bold colours; older people prefer more subtle palettes. Get those colours wrong, and a retailer will find that their customers simply won't relate to their brand.

Colour association also extends into food retailing. For example, most fast-food restaurants are decorated in vivid reds and oranges. These are colours that encourage us to eat quickly and leave - exactly what the fast-food operator wants us to do. Luxurious brands, on the other hand, favour softer colours that appear more sophisticated. In classier restaurants, those are the colours that encourage us to linger - and to order another drink, another coffee.

Creating strong and effective colour associations is about using every surface to convey the brand message, and that includes floor coverings. In a retail environment, it really does start from the floor upwards, with carpet having one distinct advantage over other materials. Quite simply, we associate soft carpet with a sense of home - walking on carpet makes us relaxed.

But there's more to carpet than its soft texture, because carpet manufacturers such as Desso now make carpets in a huge range of patterns and colours - each able, if required, to enhance mood or change special awareness.

For example, lighter colour carpet can make a smaller room appear larger and a dark carpet will make a room appear more intimate. Combined with paint colours, a short narrow room can be transformed by matching light carpet colours to deeper colour on the short walls and lighter colour on the long walls.

Some retailers are now using carpeting to influence patterns of travel around a store - particularly from the crucial zone just inside the shop entrance, often referred to as the compression or transition zone - the place where customers first orientate themselves with what's inside. Here, carpeting is being used to subtly 'direct' shoppers deeper into the store or, by using different colours and patterns, create subconscious walkways that shoppers will tend to follow.

By recognising how colour influences us, retailers are better able to induce feelings of warmth, intimacy or serenity - or, by using more vibrant palettes, to excite or stimulate. It's about understanding target markets, the product lines to appeal to them and the kind of brand the retailer wants to convey. Lastly, it's about conveying that brand though colour and design.

As with everything, creating that perfect palette is about balance - between strong colours, sophisticated neutrals, and subtle textures. It's about creating style and projecting a corporate image that resonates with customers. It's about using the walls and floor to help create a coherent image.

At Desso, our carpet ranges have been designed to complement any colour scheme and to work well across all retail and other commercial environments. We have hard-wearing and long-lasting solutions that can entice, seduce, captivate and stimulate the senses. In the new retail psychology, a carpet is a lot more than something you walk on - and, if you use the right carpet cleaner, you can also get it to smell of honeydew lemon.

Author: Andrew Sibley - Desso's Sales Director

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