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Psychology on order: How restaurants get you to spend more

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

You may think you're immune to transparent sales pitches like “Do you want fries with that?” But the tactics restaurants use to nudge you into spending a little extra may be subtler than you realize.

Here's a look at a few ways companies get you to spend (and eat) more than you intended.

Get the $ out

Restaurant menus are a complicated mixture of psychology, art and sales pitches. No detail is too small to matter, right down to the dollar sign.

Greg Rapp, a menu consultant in California, says he advises restaurants and fast-food chains to leave those off when listing prices on a menu.

“Dollar signs remind people of money,” Rapp says. “When you use dollar signs, your food looks more expensive.”

Words matter

Imagery and language can also make prices go down easier.

Florid descriptions for menu items can seem like parodies, but it's an effective way to make a fairly standard dish sound special.

So, you may balk at paying $19 for baked fish and the vegetable of the day, yet gladly pay that for “flaky cod marinated in our house sauce, served with country peas.”

“The more you talk about it, the less it costs in the customer's head. The more value you're giving them,” Rapp says.

Hand-eye coordination

The closer you are to something, the more likely you are to make an impulse buy.

It's why the areas by registers are so crowded with those little extras. If you walk into Starbucks for a $4 latte, the cafe can raise the value of that transaction by 25 percent just by getting you to grab a $1 tin of mints. So, while nobody goes to Starbucks specifically for mints, a lot of people buy them.

By a similar logic, Dunkin' Donuts began rolling out small display cases on front counters last summer that feature items like cookies and Danish pastries. The thinking is that you're more likely to get something to nibble on with your drink if it's practically in your grasp.

A classic example at fancier restaurants is the dessert cart. At the casual-dining chain Seasons 52, servers bring out a tray of mini-desserts to show diners. Pitched as “Mini Indulgences,” the method of presentation has pushed dessert sales higher than those of most other restaurants, says Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant based in Orlando, Fla.

And over at McDonald's, apple-pie dispensers are behind the registers where customers can see them. Jeff Stratton, former president of McDonald's USA, has said pie sales would fall dramatically if the dispensers were back in the kitchen.

Controlling the choices

Sometimes, the choices available will push people to spend more.

Sonic, for instance, used to offer two sizes for its shakes: a 14-ounce “regular” and a 20-ounce “large.” In 2012, the drive-in chain revamped sizes; the “regular” became a “small” and the “large” became a “regular.”

It then added a new 32-ounce “large,” as well as a 10-ounce “mini.” So the people who tend to auto-matically opt for a “large” were shifted up to a bigger, pricier size.

Drinks are a particularly ripe area for what's known in the industry as “upselling” because people usually don't pay as much attention to their prices as they do for main dishes, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of consumer psychology at Golden Gate University and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.”

Paying 25 cents more for a bigger soda or fries seems like a no-brainer to most people, even if they would've been content with the smaller portion.

“Consumers really do order much more food than they need, because it seems like a value to them,” Yarrow says.

Giving more choices also just increases the odds that something will appeal to people. That's not really as necessary for main dishes, which people will order regardless, but can push up sales of extras like appetizers or desserts.

“When you have eight appetizers on the menu versus six, you sell more appetizers with eight,” says Eugene Lee, CEO of Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, while addressing concerns about the complexity of the chain's menu last year.

What's next

In the future, that drive-through menu board might just try to read your mind. Or at least predict what you, in particular, might be tempted by.

Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson has said the chain is working on ways to have digital menu boards feature items based on the particular customer.

The tailored offerings would be possible over time with the help of the mobile app, which is set to launch this spring and would help the company keep track of what people like to order. Already, Starbucks says its email offers to customers with its apps are tailored based on past purchases.

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