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If you’re a small business owner, it’s time you know about priming, and not just as the first step to re-painting that one wall. The kind of priming we’re talking about here is with retail atmospherics and physical stimuli that are used to subconsciously influence decisions made by customers who enter your store.

In a great article by Martin Lindstrom published on FastCompany.com, Lindstrom highlights the techniques used by major chain stores to prime customers and  influence the consumer to buy. A bit negative on his part, but there’s always something to learn from “the big guys”, right?

A few observations from Lindstrom on the tactics used by organic grocer, Whole Foods:

  • First impressions count: Upon entrance to the Columbus Circle Whole Foods store in New York City, you’re greeted with fresh flowers. “These are what advertisers call “symbolics”–unconscious suggestions. In this case, letting us know that what’s before us is bursting with freshness,” says Lindstrom.
  • Atmosphere reinforces brand integrity: Referring to the chalkboard signs at Whole Foods, Lindstrom tells us that they’re there to make people feel like they’re shopping at a Farmers Market and that all the signs are hand written. “The dashed-off scrawl also suggests the price changes daily, just as it might at a roadside farm stand or local market,” says Lindstrom, “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.”
  • It’s about the little things, too: Companies like Dole actually have fruit color down to a science. “Believe it or not, my research found that while it may look fresh, the average apple you see in the supermarket is actually 14 months old,” says Lindstrom.

How this relates to small businesses

What follows are some quick examples for a handful of small business and what they could do in the organization of premises to better customer profits.

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA is a great example of a restaurant that has perfected this priming technique that we’ve been talking about.

The first thing that greets a customer is wooden display cases that look authentic and sturdy, stacked with imported olives and honey. Everything feels healthy and high end. The foods are all different and interesting brands, some that may not even be familiar to the customer.

This, coupled with the traditional Italian style decorations, coveys the feel of an open market on the streets of Florence. Dave’s Fresh Pasta has taken the store from being “just another sandwich shop” to a great business model that is attractive to patrons.

The Vermont Country Deli in Brattleboro, VT is another food store similar to Dave’s, but one that handles priming in a different way. Shelves full of desserts, jam and jellies, and then savory items immediately greet the customer.

Similar to Dave’s, the goods are displayed on wooden bookshelves or tables that are mismatched and look hand-carved, adding further to the “mom and pop” atmosphere.

The dessert section is where this store differs from Dave’s. By placing the desserts immediately in the foreground (before customers even see the normal lunch foods) causes potential shoppers to start salivating. Reminiscently Pavlov-ian, this strategy entices the customer with sweet treats causing them to think of their stomach even more than when they first walked in.

Cut in North Attleboro, MA is a hair salon with a great handle on priming. Entering the facility you are greeted by lush, green potted plants and deep mahogany wood paneling the floor.

Already, one is met with a sense of a fertile atmosphere, which allows the imagination to visit tropical retreats, as if today’s trip to get a haircut will be taking place on a private island.

Contrary to what some hair salons or spas may think, the clean, sleek lines of modern furniture and white walls aren’t always for the best, even if birdsong is piped through the speakers. Creating an exotic, jungle feel also won’t mean that customers will believe the business to be unsanitary.

Cut circumvents this problem by controlling their decorations. The plants are all confined to the two bay windows on either side of the door and the jungle-like quality is carried throughout by the animal-print furniture and the dark wooden styling hutches.

Whether you’re a coffee shop, and ice cream stand, a bookstore or even an auto repair business, there are always a way to “prime” you customers, whether it’s by greeting your spa customers with a warm neck wrap when they walk in the door, like Alayne White Spa in Providence, RI or by handing restaurant patrons a rustic clipboard with your daily farm-to-table menu, like Tallulah on Thames in Newport, RI.

Can you think of any ideas for your own business? What about ones for other businesses? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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As part of Upserve’s family of more than 10,000 restaurants, The Chef is Restaurant Insider’s secret weapon in the kitchen. As a restaurant expert in all things marketing, menu building, management, training and more, restaurateurs trust The Chef and the award-winning Restaurant Insider to dish out the ingredients needed to make your business a sweet success.