By Rob van der Westhuizen, Compuscan

With almost 2000 malls in South Africa, around 100 000 consumers flock to malls weekly [1]. They stand in queues waiting to pay for groceries, televisions, clothing, the latest shoes, and a variety of other things they may or may not need.

A variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors drive consumers and their spending habits. In the world of credit and consumer credit use, particularly in the retail environment, there is one stealthy subconscious motivator. Think about the last time you went to a mall. You parked your car and walked the gauntlet of shops, banks and restaurants – you and a few thousand other consumers.

During that time, you entered several shops to buy a variety of necessary and unnecessary items. You said something along the lines of, “I can’t believe how expensive things are these days!” and bought them anyway. You stood in long queues, often ‘unconsciously’, waiting for your turn to pay. Somewhere along your route, you stopped to enjoy a small meal at a restaurant or café. Maybe you treated yourself and your family to a film. You remarked to your wife that the prices at the concession stand are rather expensive – but you bought everyone a popcorn and soda nonetheless.

What does every shop, restaurant, cinema and even parking pay station have in common? Credit card notices. Signs on the windows, doors and at cash registers, conveniently indicate which types of credit cards the shop accepts. In the case of store cards, the signs and displays are even more prominent.

These displays, however, are not simply for the consumer’s convenience. They also serve as subconscious cues.

Richard A. Feinberg, the Associate Professor of Consumer Sciences and Retailing at Purdue University in Indiana, did a study on credit cards. Feinberg hypothesised that “stimuli associated with spending can elicit spending responses” [2].

Feinberg found that, in the presence of credit card insignia (stimuli), patrons at a restaurant tipped on average 2% more when paying with a credit card than when paying with cash. However, he noted that this could be due to other social processes.

To refine his results, Feinberg set up several experiments under different conditions, of which Experiments 1 and 2 offer particular insights into consumer behaviour for the credit industry.

Experiment 1

Two groups of subjects were asked to estimate what they would be willing to spend on products in one of two catalogues. One group received a catalogue with credit card stimuli and the other group received a catalogue without any credit card stimuli. On average, the group subjected to the credit card stimuli valued the price of the objects at 37% higher than the other group.

Experiment 2

While viewing slides of products, participants were again asked to estimate what they would be willing to spend on products. They could view these slides for as long as they needed. Like Experiment 1, there was a group who was subjected to the credit cart stimuli and a group who wasn’t. Once the participant had a value in mind, they were to press a button to indicate they had decided on a value and write the value down. The interval between the start of the slide and the push of the button was recorded. Feinberg found that on average, participants exposed to the credit card stimuli, valued the products to be 113% times more expensive than the other group. Additionally, in the presence of credit card stimuli, respondents took an average of 8.4 seconds faster to value the items.

Feinberg noted that “the results of Experiments 1 and 2 show that the presence of credit card stimuli enhances the magnitude of estimated spending and reduces decision time.” [2]

The lessons learnt from these two experiments is not to unashamedly advertise credit card brands or store cards. Rather take note of how something subtle and largely unnoticed can greatly affect a consumer’s behaviour. Marketing strategies can be greatly improved using psychological insights into consumerism, the example in this case: the “buy now, pay later” sentiment is triggered by a simple logo. Paying later is attractive to consumers because it delays the ‘pain’ experienced by losing money, as with a cash transaction.

When developing marketing strategies, keep in mind that small elements can have a large impact. This not only applies to a logo that encourages more spending, but can apply to something negative that impacts a consumer’s experience. Be aware of the subconscious cues your business is sending out.



[2] Feinberg, R. (1986). Credit Cards as Spending Facilitating Stimuli: A Conditioning Interpretation. Journal of Consumer Research, 13(3), 348.

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