Restaurants are great test labs for testing neuromarketing techniques. It’s easy to change offerings, menus, and pricing, and one gets immediate feedback on what’s working and what’s not. One technique I’ve written about from a product standpoint but which is also used by restaurants is decoy pricing.

Decoy Pricing

In Decoy Marketing, we learned that adding an inferior but similarly priced product to one’s lineup can boost sales of the better product, and in More Decoys: Compromise Marketing we found that an expensive product added at the top of one’s line may not sell well but can boost sales of the cheaper products. These same techniques can be applied to restaurant menus:

…menus contain plenty of subliminal messages.

Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys. For example, they may place a really expensive item at the top of the menu, so that other dishes look more reasonably priced; research shows that diners tend to order neither the most nor least expensive items, drifting toward the middle. Or restaurants might play up a profitable dish by using more appetizing adjectives and placing it next to a less profitable dish with less description so the contrast entices the diner to order the profitable dish. [From the New York Times – Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners by Sarah Kershaw.]

Priceless Prices

Decoy menu items are far from the only neuro-strategy employed by clever restaurant operators. We know that money symbols cause behavioral changes (see Thinking About Money), so menu designers try to minimize pricing cues that might remind people they are paying real money for their meal. Kershaw notes that many restaurants eliminate both dollar signs and cents from prices, e.g., simply “9” instead of “$8.75” to minimize the money aspect. Some menu designers feel prices that end in “9” (e.g., “$8.99″) look hucksterish and cheapen the offering. There’s research to back up some of these practices:

A study published in the spring by Dr. Kimes and other researchers at Cornell found that when the prices were given with dollar signs, customers — the research subjects dined at St. Andrew’s Cafe at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. — spent less than when no dollar signs appeared. The study, published in the Cornell Hospitality Report, also found that customers spent significantly more when the price was listed in numerals without dollar signs, as in “14.00” or “14,” than when it included the word “dollar,” as in “Fourteen dollars.” Apparently even the word “dollar” can trigger what is known as “the pain of paying.”

Of course, there’s plenty of fMRI work to show that buying pain, or the pain of paying, is a real phenomenon.

Aren’t All Eggs Farm Fresh?

Food marketers of all kinds have learned that tweaking copy with good adjectives makes food sound more appealing. Susan Franck, vice president of marketing for family dining chain Huddle House, suggests in Kershaw’s article that one way to boost sales is to add copy and “romance the description with smokehouse bacon, country ham or farm fresh eggs.” In addition, name brands can help sell menu items, explaining why at some restaurants “barbecued ribs” have been relabeled as “Jack Daniels barbecued ribs.”

Design Details

Menus are printed marketing pieces, much like catalogs, magazine ads, etc., and some of the same techniques used in the latter media can be applied by restaurants. Profitable items or other items the menu designer wants to push can be emphasized with boxes, white space, graphic elements or, in some cases, a photo. (Photos are verboten for fine dining establishments, but work well in more casual environments.)

The takeaway is that even small restaurant operators need to pay attention to the details of how their menus are designed. The big chains are already using menu engineering strategies to boost profits, and smaller industry players should be taking notes. If a restaurant is going to pay to print menus, those menus should be the most effective sales tool possible.

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