Psychology can explain the mysterious, soothing power of IKEA and other megastores

Aisle be there for you.
Aisle be there for you.
Image: Reuters/Alexandra Beier
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First I huff the candles. There’s Bali Sunrise, which smells like a fruity cocktail. There’s Cozy Nights, which is inexplicably decorated with a photo of yarn. Then there’s Coastal Linen, which is better than inland linen, apparently. I draw in their chemical scents with deep, satisfied breath, my nose almost touching them, and then return them to their shelf.

Next I traipse down the bath aisle and touch all the towels. Then I run my hand along racks and racks of clothes; t-shirts with sassy slogans, floral sundresses, sales-rack Hawaiian shirts. I pick up the coffee cups in the kitchen department and put them back down. I ride the escalator upstairs and drink in the rows of shoes crafted of leather-like material. I look at the baby clothes (even though I don’t have a kid) and make a quick circuit through the garishly lit grocery department (even though I buy all my groceries at the cultish chain across the street).

It’s the middle of the day, and I’m alone. I should probably be working. But I was feeling frazzled—unmoored, even—and a trip to this big, well-lit store soothes me. That’s because big retail browsing is my yoga.

Roaming the aisles of Costco puts me at ease—flats of salmon here, big TVs there, the omnipresent odor of hot dogs. I delight in trips to IKEA where I eat $4.99 plates of meatballs and watch the robot butt, forever tapping away at a chair cushion behind glass. (What exactly is that proving? I don’t think I’ve ever read the placard.) Malls, hardware stores, drug stores—if it is enormous, bright, and well-stocked, then I find them narcotically calming. It’s not retail therapy, exactly, because I rarely buy things. I simply like the experience of being in their ordered spaces, rife with possibility.

This butts up against a lot of taboos: that retail giants are homogenizing America, crushing small business, and can conduct their commerce only through means that undermine the workforce and environment. I don’t argue with this, but I can’t deny the magnetic pull the Big Box Store has over me. And really, who am I to resist? The experience has been finely calibrated since its invention to maximize and streamline my pleasure; the exacting forces of psychology and design brought to bear with relentless thoroughness.

Many consumers in the United States think of large retail shopping as a uniquely American pastime (or problem, depending on your point of view) but it actually has its roots across the pond with our refined English neighbors.

Leisure shopping and department stores came of age in England. One of the most hallowed (and still extant) versions is Selfridges, whose flagship store opened in London in 1909. Selfridges marketed itself as a kind of clubhouse for women, with libraries, lounges, restaurants, and other treats to tempt female shoppers.

Suddenly, the race was on to try and make large retail spaces intrinsically appealing—and understanding how. For instance, studies have shown that shelf placement influences preference [paywall]. Researchers have determined that nice smells can drive up the useage of slot machines in casinos, cause us to rate people more attractive in photos, and—yes—linger longer in retail stores. (Eau de hot dog, anyone?)

We like choice, but not too much. The influential environmental psychologist Paco Underhill has even become a retail sleuth. Underhill and his researchers shadow customers in stores, observing them and taking notes. His team has shot hundreds of thousands of hours of footage of shoppers and scrutinized the videos to tease out our likes and dislikes. Underhill writes in his book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping that this work has led to discoveries such as shoppers’ disdain of the “butt brush” (that we will move away from setups that put us in close proximity to others) to the discovery that the purchase of dog treats are often instigated by children and the elderly, so they should be placed on lower shelves. Underhill is also a proponent of the Invariant Right, which describes the American’s shoppers’ preference for keeping to the right, and has informed the ways stores are designed.

Technology has only ramped up modern-day retail research. At the 2016 Reatail’s BIG Show, a massive annual convention, 11 talks had the word “data” in their title. “Today, the key to delighting and retaining customers lies at the intersection of technology and psychology,” reads an abstract for a talk called “Happy to Be Hooked: Design, Emotion and the New Customer Experience”. In January, Apple purchased the startup Emotient, whose artificial-intelligence technology allows retailers to analyze emotions through facial expressions.

And all of this effort has been expended to make us feel comfortable—to ensure that we float down the aisle with ease. Take Target, for instance, my river of choice. (Largely because it’s a 15-minute trot from my house and also because it has done a really good job of pandering to urbanites on a budget like me: Marimekko bathing suits, please and thank you.) A trip to the corporate site spells out the numerous ways they have crafted the shopping experience: You know that euphoric feeling when you walk into a store and you instantly feel comfortable and ready to shop? queries a section on the store’s design philosophy. (Yes!)

In 1975 Target introduced the “racetrack”, a main aisle encircling the entire store, which the company still utilizes today. They also rolled out the “planogram,” a map that informs stores how to create streamlined displays. The company is working to mitigate the “tyranny of choice”[PDF] by ensuring there is more stock on the shelves but less product selections, an undertaking the company’s CEO describes as “surgical.” Target has also partnered with design and research heavyweights MIT and IDEO to refine its food business. All of this adds up to ease, but it also ensures something else very important, according to a treatise on the Target shopping experience: Big or small, our stores have one thing in common: They’re all Target. Big retail trades in the things that promote small business—uniqueness, surprise, scarcity—for the cozy blanket that is total familiarity.

Experts have put nearly as much effort into trying to parse the less quantifiable reasons we love big retail. A 1994 article in the Journal of Retailing, “The Shopping Mall as Consumer Habit” declared that shoppers participated in something called “experiential consumption,” an activity whose goal was to “obtain satisfying experiences rather than goods.” It concluded that the physical habitat of “Galleria-class” malls were as much a draw as the merchandise.

One of the writers of this paper, Peter H. Bloch, a professor at the University of Missouri, wrote especially about me. Okay, not me, exactly—Mr. Bloch does not know that I exist. But in 1983 he wrote about a little-studied practice in “Shopping Without Purchase: An Investigation of Consumer Browsing Behavior.” Sometimes people visit stores, Bloch writes, not to solve a “consumption problem” but for its “intrinsic satisfaction.” The browsing itself is a “source of pleasure.” (Preach!) He also concluded that the mere presence of a salesclerk at a front door might discourage this kind of visitor. “The browser who does not intend to make a purchase may not want to interact with salespeople,” he writes.

Here Bloch presents an alternative to the shopping-mall-as-salon that Selfridge designed. His observation rings true to me; part of my enjoyment of the mass-shopping experience is that even though I am surrounded by the thrum of human activity, I’m in a safe bubble where I can reasonably expect that no one will speak to me. Less social butterfly, more awkward curmudgeon.

Upon confessing to someone how comforting I find the big-retail environment, many people respond with popped eyes and cocked heads. IKEA on a Saturday is their hell; Costco an anxiety-inducing horror of drum-size mayonnaise vats. All the tricks employed by these commerce giants haven’t worked on them—they want in and out, and they don’t go unless they need to.

There was a time when I said all the same things. I’m from Southern California, where shopping malls are legion. My veins run with Cinnabon icing and Orange Julius. Pivotal life moments took place among carparks, embalmed palm trees, and escalators. Rejecting big retail allowed me to swat away my suburban upbringing and declare myself an Individual. (Just like dying my hair black and feigning disinterest in Dawson’s Creek.)

This conviction dulled with age. It was a pragmatic choice, sure—like most people, I’m on a budget. But this doesn’t account for what Bloch describes as my “recreational browsing” habit. That, too, has developed with age.

Stability is a myth about adulthood we unlearn—work is tenuous, rental markets brutal, healthcare a morass. Which is not to say life is miserable; mine is pretty good, I think. But there are times when I’m happy to participate in a fantasy of order and plenty, the illusion of choice without consequence. And for that I’ll immerse myself in the psychologically perfected, numerically analyzed, intentionally familiar aisles that have been engineered for me. I’ll smell the candles and touch the sweaters, and then I’ll exit the automatic doors to the outside world, where almost everything is a surprise.