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

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?


Alpert, J. I., & Alpert, M. I. (1990). Music influences on mood and purchase intentions. Psychology & Marketing, 7(2), 109-133.

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Milliman, R. E. (1982). Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers. The journal of Marketing, 86-91.

Morrin, M., & Ratneshwar, S. (2003). Does it make sense to use scents to enhance brand memory?. Journal of Marketing Research, 40(1), 10-25., 15 June 2015, Rebecca Rupp, Surviving the Sneaky Psychology of Supermarkets,, [accessed, 5 December, 2016]

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological review, 69(5), 379.

Suri, R., Kohli, C., & Monroe, K. B. (2007). The effects of perceived scarcity on consumers’ processing of price information. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 35(1), 89-100.

Turley, L. W., & Milliman, R. E. (2000). Atmospheric effects on shopping behavior: a review of the experimental evidence. Journal of business research, 49(2), 193-211.

Ward, J. C., & Barnes, J. W. (2001). Control and affect: the influence of feeling in control of the retail environment on affect, involvement, attitude, and behavior. Journal of Business Research, 54(2), 139-144.

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

One thought on “Are You Following The Yellow Brick Road?

  1. Such an interesting topic. It will definetely make me more aware of the atmospherics on the places that I go shopping. One of the things that I thing is crucial for the manipulation of atmospherics is the music, since I know from self-experience that music can produce certain emotions and vary our levels of excitement and arousal which will, at the end, affect how much we buy or how many time we spend contemplatin specific products.

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