It started as an idea to explore trolleyology. No, not the US version which judges people from their shopping and is used as a means of matching and dating. Would you go out with someone who only bought ‘value’ products?

I was interested in the psychology and exploring the way supermarkets seduce customers using music, colour and product positioning. I discovered supermarkets are designed to encourage shoppers to walk around in a direction believed to be more natural and comfortable, and that smells are pumped through the air conditioning so you enjoy the shopping experience. Research also shows that slow instrumental music means people spend more time in the store − a good thing and something supermarkets encourage.
So having discovered a fair bit on old-fashioned techniques I thought I’d investigate the internet.

First wave

It paralleled three of the main principles of trolleyology. Firstly, the experience is designed to be as pleasant as possible. Secondly, people are encouraged to stay online for as long as possible. And finally, people are persuaded to buy products from which the retailer makes most money.

Looking at all the major retailers I found very little difference in the ‘tactics’. The first screens tend to be the equivalent of the ‘transit zone’ in supermarkets − a ‘dead’ area where the baskets and information is kept. It’s similar on websites. Here trust and credibility are established, making it feel safe to shop. One key aspects of this is the logo, designed with a safe, solid colour scheme to put the shopper at ease.

Colours aren’t chosen at random. In eastern philosophy colours correspond with the seven energy centres (chakras) of the body and have powerful meanings. It is the same here. Morrison’s has a different colour design for each aspect of its website. For the section on ‘stores and services’ the green colour represents heart and love; ‘special offers’ are yellow representing emotions; and violet represents spirit and vitality for ‘new store openings’.

As with the physical supermarket, first impressions are vital. In a store it’s fresh fruit and vegetables that greet you on entry, online it’s fruit and vegetable images.

Click on food and drink and you get a picture entitled ‘PURE INDULGENCE’ with a gorgeous looking steak dish (well to some – I’m a vegetarian). Clicking on this image gives you ideas for ‘scrumptious starters’, ‘mouth-watering mains’ and delicious desserts’ all with very attractive images designed to assault your sensory imagination.

Minefields

In supermarkets the essentials are scattered to different locations, forcing shoppers to walk through the higher mark-up aisles. Online the basics are available but listed on the left-hand side and grouped with other items. So, no change there.

Buying a loaf of bread isn’t easy either. Clicking on ‘bakery & cakes’ a very interesting sub-menu pops up. It has ‘my favourites’ at the top. It seems to be in alphabetical order for a while − ‘bagels, croissants, pitta’, ‘bread – in store bakery’ – and right at the eye-catching bottom of the list is the ‘Finest range’ which is Tesco’s high profit range. I opt for boring sliced white bread under ‘bread − sliced loaves’. Other choices appear including ‘premium white’, ‘super premium white’, ‘standard white’ and ‘value white’.

"Even though you’re able to buy anything without leaving the comfort of your chair you’re not safe from the same old tricks shopkeepers have always used "

Value (25p) sounds cheap but clicking on the text gives an image of an unloved, squashed, not very nice-looking loaf. I try standard (43p) but with no image available and no information I really can’t buy it. ‘Premium’ which offers a choice of 17 loaves, all brand leaders, at 82p or so. Scroll down and find Tesco’s Finest crusty white bread also 82p. Super premium for the price of premium and it’s the finest – better buy it quick.

So, even though you’re able to buy anything without leaving the comfort of your chair you’re not safe from the same old tricks shopkeepers have always used. It’s not even subtle, which is some relief. Or is it just too subtle for me?