Eating out is easy on the mind and awful on the budget. There’s no argument here – you can save more by eating in. The reality is that Americans eat out a lot and the statistics are staggering. The National Restaurant Association suggests that Americans spent $632 billion last year (2012) at restaurants. With that much at stake, companies have quickly made a science out of it.
We spend about $1.7 billion per day eating out, which equates to $2,505 per household per year. That’s money that could otherwise be going to meals at home and a stronger retirement fund for your future, family.
The Science Behind Perception
For 99 cents, you can purchase a bean burrito at Taco Bell. The iconic logo, waxy paper, and drive-thru lane all connote a certain class and quality. Many question the standards, while others exult the affordability. But when you go out to eat at a fine restaurant, you’re looking for something better. Afterall, that’s what you’re paying for, right?
Science has perfected three key ingredients to make you spend more and with greater frequency: music, colors, and menu. By availing yourself of this knowledge you can become a more critical patron and save hundreds – possibly thousands – each year.
Sights, Sounds Make You Stay
Upon walking into your favorite restaurant you’ll normally find a music track that follows you throughout the room. From dark wood and leather upholstery to brightly lit metals, the decorative touch says a lot about what you’ll spend. By creating a safe, fun, relaxing environment, restaurants invite us to to stay and spend.
Time spent in the restaurant was the most powerful predictor of money spent in the restaurant (Caldwell & Hibbert, 2002).
Restaurants are intentional with everything they do. Knowing their audience is key, because if the patrons identify with the music playing, they’re likely to stay longer.
…Music preference provided a better explanation of actual time spent dining than tempo (Caldwell & Hibbert, 2002).
Even your menu choices may be influenced by the music and ambiance. French music may play gently in the background, and it may influence a decision to purchase French wine.
French music led to French wines outselling German ones, whereas German music led to the opposite effect on sales of French wine (North, Hargreaves, & McKendrick, 1999).
Colors Make You Feel
Today, you can find salmon with color added. The Kool-Aid, sodas, and sport drinks all fizz and pop with a different fluorescent color. Psychologically, we are wired to interpret these colors as indicators of health and vibrancy. These shades have a powerful effect on our perceptions of taste.
Color had a significant influence on the identification of…flavors (Stillman, 1993).
Seeing vibrant colors in food can enhance flavor identification and perceived satisfaction of the product being offered. Alone, this quite powerful. But restaurants also enhance and manipulate your sense of taste by the color of cups, bowls, and accessories.
…beverages were ranked as sweeter when consumed out of cream-colored cups. Drink unsweetened hot chocolate from an orange mug, serve fajitas on a red plate… (Prevention).
Menu Pricing, Formatting Make You Pay
Crafting a menu is key. There are strategies that the restaurant industry employ to aid your psychological mindset and encourage greater spending.
When we are reminded of the dollar cost of menu items, spending can be affected. There’s a quick fix to alleviate the burden of spending: take these symbols off the menu!
…results did show a significant reduction in spending when formats with monetary cues such as the word “dollars” or the symbol “$” were used (Yang, Kimes, & Sessarego, 2008).
99 cent items are commonplace at larger fast-food changes, and there’s a powerful psychological component to creating a gap between 99 cents and regularly-priced meals.
A fast-food operator may hold prices below $1.00 for as long as possible, and then jump to $1.25 or higher…because there is less purchase resistance once the dollar barrier has been jumped (Kreul, 1982).
This effectively creates a dichotomous menu of decisions for the patron: Group A (less expensive) versus Group B (more expensive). For finer restaurants, Group A is kept higher than average and Group B is kept lower than average. This makes spending more seem like a better value.
There’s a reason that chunks of text may be next to a short dish title. Including detailed descriptions of the menu offerings can assuage spending concerns.
…menu descriptions have the potential to increase revenue while also increasing the value perception (Shoemaker, Dawson, & Johnson, 2005).
Restaurants are clearly here to stay. Americans have voted with their capitalistic dollar in powerful agreement. The fact remains that eating out is a social past-time and great way to hang out with friends, co-workers, and lovers. By learning about the tricks restaurants use, you can at least become a critical consumer and save money along the way.
For more about critical consumption and tricks businesses use to sell us more, check out: Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.