… and a Merry Christmas from Screwfix.com

So, the season of Joy is upon us, tills are ringing and the Christmas cards are beginning to drop onto the doormat. But hark, amongst the first to arrive – a card from who else but… Screwfix.com.

img_20161206_175910  img_20161206_175920

Ok – I know what you’re up to Screwfix. Sending me a Christmas card in an attempt to seem like you have feelings for me like other senders of Christmas cards do (representativeness heuristic). I won’t fall for your thinly veiled attempt to influence your brand availability in my mind.

But is there also something else at work here? Could Screwfix.com’s Christmas card also be exploiting the norm of reciprocation?

Reciprocation is the sense that we are expected to give something in return for something. It obliges us to repay others for what we have received from them and is one of the strongest social forces in human cultures (Gouldner, 1960)

It’s not a new concept and has been valued for many 1000’s of years – the Roman writer Cicero spoke of it and the Ancient Greeks based their system of law on it.

However reciprocation can be used to influence people’s behaviour (Cialdini et al, 2004). By giving something to someone, a donor can use the recipient’s perceived obligation to get something back. This sense of obligation is deeply ingrained. It even applies if the receiver knows that the donor won’t find out if they reciprocated in some way (Whatley et al, 1999). Is it possible that by receiving a Christmas card from Screwfix.com, i may feel an increased sense that i owe them something, for example loyalty as a customer?

Despite the apparent power or reciprocity, how strongly people perceive the need to reciprocate varies. People receiving an anonymous Christmas card are more likely to reciprocate if the Christmas card is printed on quality card (Kunz et al, 1976) than on an inferior card. This suggests that the perceived ‘cost’ incurred by the donor may be a factor in how motivated recipients are to reciprocate. A recent test (Meier, 2016) was unable to repeat these results as the response rate was so low and postulated that this may be the result of changing attitudes towards strangers.

The 1976 study by Kunz et al also found that the perceived social status of the sender also increased the likelihood of response compared with people who received cards with no indication of the senders social status. This may work in a social context (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs cites ‘Respect by Others’ as a secondary need) however in the case of Screwfix.com, it is unlikely to be a motivator. Interestingly, we also support the Dogs Trust Charity and they too sent a Christmas card. However this is a very personalised card and written in the form of a personal Christmas letter from the dog to us. This could potentially tap into a more emotional relationship and also the social needs of family as pets are often perceived as family members (Cain, AO, 1985).


I am already a Screwfix customer, so would the Christmas card be more likely to evoke a sense of reciprocation in me? Although liking does affect behaviours towards an individual or brand, reciprocation is not dependent on this. Investigators asked people to look at paintings, some of whom were given a free coke by an experimenter to induce reciprocation. The likeability of the experimenter had been manipulated beforehand so that some of the people liked the experimenter whereas other didn’t. The targets were then asked if they would buy some raffle tickets from the experimenter. The results showed that the sense of reciprocation didn’t rely on whether or not the people liked the experimenter (Regan et al, 1971).

However the drive to reciprocate fades with time. People given a free drink were happy to reciprocate when asked to deliver a letter for the donor 5 minutes later, however, after a weeks delay, there was no measureable desire to return the favour (Burger et al, 1997).

On balance, in light of the short lived effect of reciprocation, i feel the card from Screwfix.com is unlikely to evoke a reciprocal response in recipients. The low quality card and brief message suggesting that little expense has been invested adds to this. If it does have a behavioural impact, the Screwfix.com Christmas card is more likely to work by increasing mental availability of the brand. It is still a clever marketing tactic as recipients are more likely to process the message due to the novel format and the representativeness heuristic. It could also be perceived as a legitimate reason for a brand to get in touch – after all, everybody likes to be thanked – and this exposure can help increase liking through the Mere Exposure Effect (Zajonc, 1968).


Burger, J. M., Horita, M., Kinoshita, L., Roberts, K., & Vera, C. (1997). Effects on time on the norm of reciprocity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19(1), 91-100. Chicago

Cain, A. O. (1985). Pets as family members. Marriage & Family Review, 8(3-4), 5-10.

Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 55, 591-621.

Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American sociological review, 161-178.

Kunz, P. R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season’s greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research, 5(3), 269-278.

Meier, B. P. (2016). Bah humbug: Unexpected Christmas cards and the reciprocity norm. The Journal of social psychology, 1-6.

Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(6), 627-639.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1975). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. In Utility, probability, and human decision making (pp. 141-162). Springer Netherlands.

Whatley, M. A., Webster, J. M., Smith, R. H., & Rhodes, A. (1999). The effect of a favor on public and private compliance: How internalized is the norm of reciprocity?. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21(3), 251-259.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.

Are You Following The Yellow Brick Road?


Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow followed the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, home of the Wizard of Oz. Along the way, the group experience a range of different emotions as they come across Munchkins, Wicked Witches, Winkie Soldiers and Flying Monkeys. The Wizard of Oz may only be an imaginative story, but many of us regularly go on a journey in which our emotions are manipulated by design – when we go shopping. So why are your emotions so powerful when shopping and how do businesses control yours?

People are generally not good at interpreting their own emotions. In trials by Schacter in 1962, arousal was induced in people through injections of norepinephrine. The participants perception of whether they were happy or angry was then controlled by exposing them to a happy or sad person. All the people were aroused in the same way – via the norepinephrine – but the actual emotion the participant perceived was not controlled by themselves, but by the cue they experienced. Companies can use contextual cues in the shops to cause people to interpret their emotions in ways that benefit the company. For example, inducing emotions of guilt can increase sales of pet products as shoppers feel guilty for he member of their social group (their pet) that they have left at home.

©Sad and Useless

People in a positive mood are more likely to try new products and to weight positive claims made about those products more heavily (Kahn et al, 1993). Inducing different emotions in people whilst they are shopping enables companies to influence shopper behaviours including what and how much they purchase.


Companies are sophisticated in how they go about controlling shopper emotions. One method companies use to produce specific emotional effects and increase the likelihood of a purchase is by the careful design of the stores and websites where you shop, known as Atmospherics (Kotler, 1973).

Emotion is defined as either intense affect OR affect plus physiological arousal (Kardes et al, 2008) . 3 factors control shopper’s affective responses: pleasure-displeasure, degree of arousal, and dominance-submissiveness (Mehrabian et al, 1974). Companies control these different factors during shopping to influence their emotions.

Online, websites use messaging to show how many products are left or that demand is high. Limiting the availability of a product and introducing scarcity increases arousal (Suri et al, 2007). Arousal can also cause people to pay more attention. The Yerkes Dodson Law (1908)  states that higher arousal generates greater performance (up to a point).


Dominance in a retail environment can be influenced by the customers perceived control. This is also likely to evoke affect, for example if a customer judges that a site will enable them to complete their task, it’s likely to prompt positive affect, arousal, and involvement (Ward et al, 2001). Fast loading pages and clear navigation can both help increase perceived control. Feedback on actions such as indicating an item has been added into a basket also reassures users that the action they have initiated has resulted in the intended outcome.


Interestingly, excitement from a stimulus can be transferred onto a subsequent stimulus in an additive way. For example, a proportion of the arousal caused by seeing urgency messaging can be transferred to a subsequent stimuli such as viewing a product through a phenomenon called Excitation Transfer Theory (Zillman, 1971). Not only are you being affected by the product, but also by the stimuli experienced before the product. Potentially, this can make the product more stimulating than if you had seen it on its own, without any prior stimuli. There is a limitation to this transfer – if too much time has elapsed, then this won’t occur. However the time is long enough for the effect to occur with tv ad slots following a sporting event, so it can last minutes. Thus it can apply in an online or offline environment. So excitement caused by seeing urgency messaging on a website has the potential to enhance the excitement when looking at the hotels themselves.

Run-down hotel
copyright www.fotolibra.com

Physical stores also use atmospherics to manipulate our emotions.

Arousal can be manipulated by means of scents. Two slot machines were ‘odorised’ in a Las Vegas casino over a weekend and the amount gambled on the machines increased by 45.11% compared with the prior and subsequent weekends (Hirsch AR, 1995). Scents in the environment tend to increase physiological arousal levels.


Playing slow tempo music in shops also slows the pace of shoppers and increases sales volumes (Milliman 1982). However there are other considerations, for example the music needs to be congruent with the product (Kelaris et al, 1993). In one example, sad music produced the most significant increase in sales (Alpert & Alpert, 1990). This was thought to be due to the product – a ‘missing you’ greeting card.

Marduk‚ march 2012 Left to right: Morgan, Lars, Mortuus, Devo
Marduk‚ march 2012
Left to right: Morgan, Lars, Mortuus, Devo

Shops already exploit lighting to make fruit appear fresher (Rupp, R, June, 2015) but the research suggests that lighting offers scope for influencing our emotions through our levels of arousal. For example, blue light (470nm) caused greater responses than green (550nm) light in brain areas involved in the modulation of cognition by arousal  (Cajochen, 2007). 

Shops want to encourage more people into the shops, but if too successful, this can increase customers’ perceptions of crowding. Research has shown that perceived crowding leads to less enjoyable shopping experiences and can lead to less satisfaction, browsing and affect the number of purchases (Turley et al, 2000). To counter this, companies increase the ceiling height in their buildings and adjust aisle widths to reduce perceptions of crowding.


Shops can also influence consumers through atmospherics effects before they even arrive at the store. Exposing people to others activates similar traits and goals (Dijksterhuis, A, 2005).  The new John Lewis store in Leeds provides a graphic example of this. The shop is approached via an arcade of high luxury shops. People approaching the John Lewis store are exposed to many other shoppers buying from these shops, priming the behaviour (and perceived spend on hedonic goods) that John Lewis are targeting.


In conclusion, whether you are shopping online or in a bricks and mortar shop, companies can affect what you buy and your experience. It could be argued that offline stores have more ability to control these areas as shoppers are physically present at the store. Online stores have less control over the environment of the shopper when viewing. Perhaps this is one area where offline shops have an advantage over online and should focus on as an increasing proportion of shoppers make their purchases online.


Just like the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald city, pulling levers to influence Dorothy and her companions emotions, companies that are aware of the power of emotions influence your emotions during your shopping experience through the use of atmospherics.

What is the cleverest use of atmospherics that you have ever seen used online or offline?


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Zillmann, D. (1971). Excitation transfer in communication-mediated aggressive behavior. Journal of experimental social psychology, 7(4), 419-434.