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Christmas Physics

I'm listening to a book called "The Physics of Christmas" by Roger Highfield, and it's simply amazing the things which get consideration in this over-commercialized season. The book, having already covered the history of "Santa Claus" and his use in Coca Cola commercials, his effect in Denmark, and all sorts of other things, is currently talking about the science of shopping.

Currently, though, he's talking about shopping. On average, 5 out of 1000 customers coming into a store buy something during the Christmas season. The "tricks" that retailers use during this holiday season are staggering. For example, the layout of the store is critical. Upon entering a closed space, for example, humans are more likely to turn right than to turn left. Another example: items at eye level are purchased nearly twice as often as items at floor level. UPCs can track "store hotspots," allowing retailers to rearrange the store.

Sophisticated science (psychology anyway) has converted the average consumer into a biological pawn, selling what the retailer wants to the buyers it wants to sell it to. Aisles are widened to encourage customers to browse. Colors, smells, lighting, and layout all "trick" or work against our commercial resistance.

Cosmetics and jewelry at the entrance put a sparkle in people's eyes and a nice smell in their noses (or coffee, fruits, and bread in supermarkets). Fruit offers the myriad of colors - people are naturally attracted to bright colors, such as reds and greens. Retailers have found that red leads to "quick decisions" - impulse buys and "in a rush" holiday shopping.

Smell trickery is resurfacing as well in other stores. Other stores routinely pump the smell of brandy, clove, pine, cinnamon, and so on throughout the store to encourage a relaxed, holiday mindset. Smell is being remarketed as "the hidden persuader." One study showed that gamblers spent up to 50% more when a pleasant smell was wafted over them in a casino. Nike found that people were willing to buy more sneakers - and pay more for them - if a floral scent was present. It does more than combat the smell of nasty feet!

Sales are increased 38% if slower songs are played than when faster songs are played. Slow songs relieve stress and encourage customers to take their time. Thus, you're more likely to hear "Silent Night" than "Jingle Bells" in many stores. The type matters, too: classical music encourages the purchase of higher-ticket items, but pop music encourages quick buys of cheaper items.

This section then goes on to compare and list the factors that determine how long someone shops, what they shop for, and so on. An amusing segment put forth the generalization of male shoppers at Christmas as being "desperation, abruptness, tardiness, and discomfort." Gender and social status, clerk relationships, proximity of similar stores, and so on all play into the shopping season. Would an Apple store next to a candy store or a book store sell more, all other things being equal?

Unfortunately, the book fails to touch on Internet shopping, something that's arguably more important than store shopping. eBay is running a bunch of pathetic ads (who wants used stuff for Christmas??). Something like 50% of gifts this year could be bought online (I made that number up, but I know it's pretty high). Smells may not play a role in Internet shopping, but other factors are important: the ease of use of the Web site. The colors and overall design affect decisions, I am sure. There are no clerks, but "up-front" information like the return policy and whatnot surely play into the buying decision.

The discussion continues onward, and it's all much more interesting than I've probably made it out to be in this distillation. I have thought several times of my own "selling" tactics. Men are more likely to consult a clerk, whereas women are more likely to browse and take in the "documentation" (labels, signs, etc.). But how does this play into an Apple store, where men are typically "the technologically knowledgeable ones" (yes, that's a stereotype, but go look up any of the studies that prove this to be true, in general)? Your guess is as good as mine, but it's certainly something I'll be tuned into more as a result of listening to this book.

I'm only a few hours into this eight hour book, but the author has also already talked about Christmas cards. He analyzed the psychology of Christmas card giving - does a fancy, homemade card say "I care about you so much that I took all this time to make you a card!" or does it say "I'm so wealthy I have so much free time to do frivolous things like make cards"? He's talked about the psychology of gift-giving, and covered its history. Are you more likely to try to "one-up" your family members or your friends with bigger gifts? Read (or listen to) the book to find out...