Login for members

Subconscious Mechanisms at the Point of Sale

By Katharina Kuehn

Do you sometimes find yourself heading to the shops for one item and leaving with a boot full of shopping bags? Do you spot a store and get somehow magically drawn in and end up buying 10 things you never thought you would need?

Or, the other way round, do you set out for some retail therapy but get turned away, because it just doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel inspiring? The crossover of neuromarketing and retail provides an opportunity to better understand the underlying subconscious mechanisms that determine whether and why we engage in a certain retail experience – or why not.  As one shopper indulges in a proper spending spree with a certain retailer another shoppers brain (and credit card!) escape on a short holiday.

What really determines consumers attraction and engagement in retail

As neurosciences suggest, human and therefore consumer decision making takes place largely below the radar of the conscious mind. Every stimuli (advertisement, promotion, retail experience, product, brand) gets evaluated subconsciously and filtered through the emotional operating system in the consumer’s brain. Then we determine what is noise and what is relevant, what we perceive at all, what we recall and what motivates a certain action. This emotional operating system consists of three major forces, which Neuromarketing expert and author Dr. Haeusel describes as ‘The Big 3’. They are:

  • The balance system (goal and purpose: security, avoidance of risk, stability)
  • The dominance system (goal and purpose: self-assertion, displacement of the competition, autonomy)
  • The stimulant system (goal and purpose: discovery of new things, learning new skills)

Recognizing the wishes of the 3 emotion systems of balance, dominance, and stimulants is crucial. Why? Because these 3 systems cause completely different shopper expectations in terms of store experience, visual merchandise, and even pricing strategies.
Let’s explore four types of shopping experiences that can be clearly aligned with ‘The Big Three,’ easy, experiential, and exclusive shopping.

Easy Shopping

Let’s start with the Balance system and its needs and wishes when shopping. Safety, no stress, order, easiness and convenience. Simply put, the Balance system seeks a shopping experience which is as easy and comforting as possible. Visual merchandising and store layouts that are functional and straightforward with easy navigation and quick orientation are preferred. Products should be simple, reliable quality at a predictable, constantly low price point (every day low price strategy as opposed to aggressive, temporary discounting). Too many options have an unsettling effect on the Balance system – it wants a limited choice.

A well-executed example is provided by Aldi. The very narrow product range within each category, functional store design and visual merchandise, strictly controlled and absolutely constant product quality, everyday low prices. Aldi’s core market? Customers with an emphasis on the Balance system in their brains. 

Experiential Shopping

Exactly the opposite are the expectations of shoppers who are predominantly driven by the stimulant system. The stimulant system is attracted to indulgence and experience-oriented visual merchandise, such as tasting stations and distinct zones, they seek “experiential shopping”. Choice and variety can’t be big enough and whilst the Balance system is satisfied with home brands, the stimulant system prefers manufacturer brands with a strong emphasis on lifestyle, pleasure and experience. The Australian retailer Peter Alexander is an example of a retailer that attracts the stimulance driven personality types called Open-minded and Hedonists, as tested in the Australian Retail Consumer Study 2012, conducted by RDG Insights.


hugo boss





Exclusive Shopping

Exclusive shopping, again, originates in the Dominance system. Particularly when it comes to products that have a high socially distinctive function – like fashion, cars or living & furniture – the Dominance system seeks status and exclusivity. This is then exactly how products need to be displayed in retail: exclusive ambiance, ranges of the highest quality product, and very importantly, personalized service.

Hugo Boss provides an excellent example of executing this proposition right down to the smallest, even subconscious, details. When we look at the flagship store in the meatpacking district of New York, we find scarce products, tall racking (subconsciously triggering the emotion of having to climb up to reach the product), exclusive materials, subdued lighting, club appeal.

 hb index


All of the above are quite contrary emotional worlds in shoppers minds. So, how can retail respond to this? The answer lies is relating these emotional worlds at the point of sale to the target markets that correspond, and then executing to these propositions. This achieves a relevant retail offer that will draw the right customers into stores, resonate with them and create profitable and loyal relationships. 

katharina speakingKatharina Kuehn is Director of RDG Insights, who specialize in providing retailers and brands with neuromarketing insights and their application to strategic branding and the point of sale. Katharina is a specialist practitioner of Limbic®, one of the most recognized and scientifically best-established behaviour & emotion models for the retail and consumer goods industry worldwide. Katharina consults, presents, writes and interviews regularly on the topic of neuromarketing in retail.