I Want it Now!: Shopping, Brains & Special Offers

Bargain Card
Brain Scan
Head Scan

Have you ever visited a supermarket and been overwhelmed by the number of special offers? Whether it’s ‘Buy One Get One Free’, ‘20% off’, or even ‘Two for Three pounds’, it’s estimated that around a quarter of all products on supermarket shelves are on some kind of promotion. If supermarkets haven’t got this right, brands risk giving away millions of pounds in miscalculated margins and lost custom. Consequently a consortium of leading FMCG brands commissioned the Laboratory of Consumer Psychology and SBXL to conduct a large-scale Neuromarketing project to understand how these special offers impact consumer behaviour.

This research followed participants through a simulated £80 grocery shop, whilst a medical-grade fMRI scanner tracked activity in their brains. Shoppers were presented with a range of products and asked to purchase a number of items from a shopping list, choosing between a wide range of special offers. Here, we were interested in identifying which part of the brain is most involved when shopping, and understanding how customers actually decide which products to buy.

The study found that after around 23 minutes of shopping, consumers’ decision making processes switched. Initially, customers chose items by using the cognitive part of their brain, which involves computation and logical decision-making – such as deciding which product offers the best value for money. However, after 23 minutes customers started to rely on the emotional part of their brain, which is more driven by sensory impulse, than a calculation of costs. After 40 minutes (the time taken for a typical weekly shop) the cognitive system gets so tired it effectively shuts down. This means we cease to form rational thoughts altogether, and depend solely on emotional instinct.

To find out more about this study, take a look at the video from BBCs XXX and get in touch if this inspires a research question of your own.