Thousands of Gwinnett shoppers will be flocking to stores later this week for Georgia's latest sales tax holiday, many armed with the notion they are savvy consumers who know a good bargain when they see it.
But, even the cleverest shopper realizes that in an ultra competitive retail landscape, everyone from Sega to Starbucks does their homework. More sophisticated then ever, retail is a science that uses psychology and anthropology to find what shapes consumer
Take the effect of music, for example.
Parents dragged into Abercrombie & Fitch to buy jeans and sweaters for their kids probably complain of a headache, but to teens the pulsing sounds of Moby are a shopping stimulant that "gets the heart racing, the nervous system aroused - the more excitement the better," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University.
Like any smart retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch has done its research to find what constitutes a unique experience for its core customers: "Younger shoppers used to having their iPods in their ears, and the music turned up loud," said University of Georgia Marketing professor Rajiv Grover.
Retailers can find subtle ways to flip the spending switch. Skinny mirrors and rosy lighting have been around for years but are more frequent today.
Several years ago retailers such as Banana Republic and J Crew began using wooden tables because they are associated with touch, prompting shoppers to pick up that polo knit or pair of khakis and, in turn, making it more likely they will buy it.
Some companies have even studied the use of aroma on the buying impulse, taking a page from casinos, which put certain scents in the air to get their patrons in a spending mood. Research has produced this somewhat surprising fact about men: Their favorite scent is not fancy perfume or grilled steak, but cinnamon rolls, Yarrow said.
"There is nothing underhanded about any of this," she said. "The retail world is so competitive. Retailers need to know what consumers want. They are desperate to stay alive."
Many turn to Paco Underhill, author of "Why We Buy" and a well known retail consultant. He influenced by the ideas of urban anthropologist William White, whose time-lapse photography became an important tool in urban planning.
Underhill took White's model and applied it to retail, using video cameras to capture consumer behavior in stores across the world. The research produced scores of findings, including the "butt brush" theory, which postulated that if shoppers - especially women - were touched from behind as they browsed merchandise they would probably get irritated and move.
The lesson: Never put products that require more than cursory inspection on a narrow aisle.
Now a pioneer in retail anthropology, Underhill's consulting firm Environsell advises many of the largest companies in retailing: Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss & Co., Adidas, General Motors, Lowe's, The Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic.
Underhill thinks retailers have to be innovators. After all, consumers are becoming older, wiser and harder to please. At the same time, the retail playing field gets more crowded every year. In Georgia, retail space on the market grew 5 percent between 2002 and 2005 to 205 million square feet - faster than the growth in the number of shoppers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"Through much of the 20th century merchants fought wars: It was Burger King against McDonald's, Rich's against Goldsmith's," Underhill said. "Part of what we have done is go from war to bar fight. Look at someone walking through Perimeter Mall. They have 200 potential expenditures. It could be the Victoria's Secret, the movies, Macy's."