The unexpected factor that's influencing your shopper's minds

Retail is about detail. Shoppers make many decisions subconsciously and the shoppers’ minds are fickle and under the influence of many environmental factors. Thus, retailers sometimes need to think about the less obvious details of their trade. Factors that may seem trivial and where you never even thought about can actually be a huge (subconscious) influence to shoppers. Look at your retail space through the eyes of an architect, for instance; architects know that the places we inhabit influence how we think, including how we shop. One such feature that should not be ignored and will be discussed today is ceiling height.

From our work at different clients we noticed that in some stores an architectural divide between floors exists. For instance, a store where the ceiling of the highest floor is lower than those of the other floors. Especially when shoppers go from a floor with a high ceiling to a floor with a low ceiling, it might feel even more cramped than it actually is, with the high ceilings still fresh in the shoppers’ minds. This fact might be affecting your shoppers in a way you would not want to.

*Ceilings and personal space

A room with a low ceiling feels cramped, but also intimate (think of a small wooden house, or bunk beds). Both suggest that we might not want to share such a room it with strangers, including other shoppers. Personal space is like an imaginary bubble, and if somebody enters it we feel uncomfortable. For close friends, that bubble is small, whereas it is bigger for strangers. Turns out, if we have less vertical space (low ceiling), we demand more horizontal space, so the bubble is wider (read more).

Therefore, a room with a lower ceiling will leave us open to more “invasions” of our personal space. These invasions feel discomforting, sometimes even make us angry or scared. In shopping, they divert our attention from the product and even threaten that some of that negative emotions will “spill-over” on the products, store or the brand. Research has found that specifically women are more affected by this.

Ceilings and way of thinking

But ceiling height also has another, more subtle influence on us. High ceilings are associated with freedom, and they also make our thoughts more free. One study demonstrated that making the ceiling only 2 feet taller (around 0.5m), from 8 to 10 feet, will make people think more abstractly and open-mindedly. This is because of relational processing, which means that people think in a way where they search for similarities between objects, connect otherwise disparate ideas and stay open-minded instead of searching for faults. The opposite, item-specific processing, means that people pay attention to details of each specific thing or idea.

In a retail setting, if you want the shoppers’ to be influenced by associations, you want them to think relationally, for which a higher ceiling is better. A shopper thinking relationally will be influenced more strongly by what the products share: the brand and the brand-evoked associations. He or she will be more immersed in the brand idea and less in each particular product. And if the brand has a positive association for a shopper, the products will also feel more positive.

Of course it’s not possible to change the height of a store’s ceiling, but it is possible to take the gained insights into account and make a ceiling clutter-free and remove non-essential fixtures, this will remove attention from the (low) ceiling. Another option is to paint the ceilings and walls in a light color, which makes the room feel more spacious. Lastly, stronger lightning can also be effective as this makes people less sensitive to intrusions to personal space. And the broader takeaway should be that it’s essential to always be aware that -seemingly- trivial factors can be a crucial part of the shopping experience.