Menu-ology

Menu-ology
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Restaurants mind their menus as much as their recipes.

Ever notice how the grocery store puts milk all the way at the back of the store, even though shoppers often duck in just for a gallon of it?

It’s no accident. Retailers know that traveling past the snack aisles (hello, cookies and crackers) on the way to dairy is pretty tempting.

Grocers aren’t the only ones. Some clothing stores have up-fitted their dressing rooms with lighting and mirrors that make us appear more, well, fit than we may actually be.

When we look better and feel better, we’re more prone to buy, shop longer or splurge on extras; in other words, to deviate from our plan.

It’s the science behind presentation. And marketing.

And it applies to restaurants, too.

“We come to a restaurant with a particular action plan and maybe a budget, but then we change our mind, and part of their goal is to change our mind,” says Dan Ariely, a leading behavioral economist at Duke University. “Once we are in their environment, it’s hard not to kind of follow their rules for what we should order. It’s easy to think that it’s appropriate to order appetizers and the main dish and dessert and maybe a bottle of wine even if we don’t necessarily think this is the right approach for us.”

Here are a few common methods:

1.) The decoy. The decoy is pricey and you may not order it, but it’s there to set a standard. People react in relative terms, according to Ariely, who holds a Ph.D in both cognitive psychology and business. “We look at the information around us and we think, relative to this, what is expensive and what is not?” he explains. “If there’s an item on the menu that’s extra expensive we might not buy that item, but the overall shift of what is reasonable and not reasonable to spend is going to change.”

2.) The menu-come-lately. Desserts may get their own, separate menu. Researchers say it’s because patrons may skip an appetizer or something else if they spot a must-have dessert on the main menu and decide to plan for it.

3.) The beautiful prompt. Words can be magic. And research tells us that rich explanations of, for example, where the tomatoes were farmed and where the chicken came from make a difference. “We become susceptible to the description of the information … we become more excited about that and are more likely to pay a high price,” says Ariely.

4.) What you don’t see: dollar signs, and food prices in a row. Studies show people spend more when the price of the entrée is noted as simply 15 rather than $15. And entrée prices listed in a row may promote price shopping.

5.) The sweet spot. Research shows that most people look first at the upper right corner of a two-page menu. Restaurants may put the item with the biggest profit margin there. Or, maybe that’s where the most-ordered item is. After all, restaurants are looking for patrons to have a big time, but they’re also looking for them to return.

Kate Turgeon Watson

Kate Turgeon Watson is a freelance writer who lives and works in Raleigh. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Media and Journalism, she has 15 years experience writing for print, digital and broadcast media. Kate is an award-winning writer whose work has been picked up by the Associated Press national news wire.
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Kate Turgeon Watson is a freelance writer who lives and works in Raleigh. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Media and Journalism, she has 15 years experience writing for print, digital and broadcast media. Kate is an award-winning writer whose work has been picked up by the Associated Press national news wire.