The Secrets of a Master Retail Manipulator

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Cheap trendy jewelry and amusing throwaway gifts are placed strategically to encourage impulse buys and lure shoppers further into the depths of the store, where pricier items—and the occasional celebrity—lurk. Consumers can’t help themselves.

The boutique store in question is Kitson, and owner Fraser Ross gave something of an insider tour of the Santa Monica store to the WSJ, revealing retailer tricks and curious consumer behavior along the way.

Ross reveals that the store’s merchandise is laid out in a careful path, starting with gift ideas that range from cute to silly up front, intended to draw shoppers in the door—and in for the kill, in the form of overpriced fashions filling the heart of the store. The WSJ sets the scene:

Toward the front of the stores are gift items such as funny tea towels, scented candles, a 2011 “Nice Jewish Guys” calendar, and “The Gospel According to Coco Chanel.”

In the back are jewelry, accessories, shoes and clothing—with an emphasis on sequins and other dressy looks for holidays.

Shoppers barely seem aware they are being taken by the hand, and taken for a ride, as they scoop up $65 worth of towels, a pair of $316 sneakers, or over $100 worth of junk jewelry. A smart retailer understands shopping behavior much better than any shopper, and there’s no better season to take advantage of this knowledge than the one going on right now. Another glimpse from the WSJ:

It’s hard to spend time in Mr. Ross’s shop without feeling that holiday shoppers are pawns on his chessboard. One recent day, he predicted the Silly Bandz by the door would be irresistible to children passing by on the street. Over the next few hours, dozens of kids dragged their mothers into the store by the arm.

What’s especially interesting is that boutiques like Kitson are sought out because they are quirky and have a certain personality, some unique aesthetic and sense of taste that you just won’t find at Target. But this aesthetic is tossed out the window during the holiday season because retailers fill their stores not with stuff they personally like, nor even with stuff they think their loyal shoppers will like, but with stuff they think their shoppers are likely to buy for someone else as gifts. So whose sense of taste are shoppers buying into here? It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s certainly not that of the boutique owners and designers.

Ross admits as much to the WSJ, saying he’d never be as foolish and easily manipulated as his customers are:

Asked if he ever shops the way his customers do, he responded: “No. No. No. No. Because I know all the tricks.”

Tricks like these are to be found almost everywhere you shop, from the grocery store (the milk’s way in the back) to the drugstore (toys and candy near the checkout) and beyond. And if it’s not already apparent, when you purchase things that you’ll soon regret—because you paid double what’s necessary, or you realize it’s just more crap that’ll wind up in a landfill—well then the trick is on you.

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