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How Whole Foods “Primes” You To Shop

An insightful piece by Martin Lindstrom on priming. As Lindstrom points out in his new book Brandwashed, retailers are becoming masters at the art of seduction.

Consider Whole Foods’s store at Columbus Circle in New York City:

As you descend the escalator you enter the realm of a freshly cut flowers. These are what advertisers call “symbolics”–unconscious suggestions. In this case, letting us know that what’s before us is bursting with freshness.

Flowers, as everyone knows, are among the freshest, most perishable objects on earth. Which is why fresh flowers are placed right up front–to “prime” us to think of freshness the moment we enter the store. Consider the opposite–what if we entered the store and were greeted with stacks of canned tuna and plastic flowers? Having been primed at the outset, we continue to carry that association, albeit subconsciously, with us as we shop.

The prices for the flowers, as for all the fresh fruits and vegetables, are scrawled in chalk on fragments of black slate–a tradition of outdoor European marketplaces. It’s as if the farmer pulled up in front of Whole Foods just this morning, unloaded his produce, then hopped back in his flatbed truck to drive back upstate to his country farm. The dashed-off scrawl also suggests the price changes daily, just as it might at a roadside farm stand or local market. But in fact, most of the produce was flown in days ago, its price set at the Whole Foods corporate headquarters in Texas. Not only do the prices stay fixed, but what might look like chalk on the board is actually indelible; the signs have been mass-produced in a factory.

Ever notice that there’s ice everywhere in this store? Why? Does hummus really need to be kept so cold? What about cucumber-and-yogurt dip? No and no. This ice is another symbolic. Similarly, for years now supermarkets have been sprinkling select vegetables with regular drops of water–a trend that began in Denmark. Why? Like ice displays, those sprinkled drops serve as a symbolic, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. Ironically, that same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise. So much for perception versus reality.

Then there’s those cardboard boxes with anywhere from eight to ten fresh cantaloupes packed inside each one. These boxes could have been unpacked easily by any one of Whole Foods’ employees, but they’re left that way on purpose. Why? For that rustic, aw-shucks touch. In other words, it’s a symbolic to reinforce the idea of old-time simplicity. But wait, something about these boxes looks off. Upon close inspection, this stack of crates looks like one giant cardboard box. It can’t be, can it? It is. In fact, it’s one humongous cardboard box with fissures cut carefully down the side that faces consumers (most likely by some industrial machinery at a factory in China) to make it appear as though this one giant cardboard box is made up of multiple stacked boxes. It’s ingenious in its ability to evoke the image of Grapes of Wrath-era laborers piling box after box of fresh fruit into the store.

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Check out Lindstrom’s new book Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.

Think Whole Foods is alone in using psychology to get you to buy? See our post last year on Trader Joe’s.

Lindstrom is the author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, and most recently Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.