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Restaurant Tricks That Make You Spend More

Written by Hank Coleman - 7 Comments

Restaurant Tricks That Make You Spend More

Casinos, grocery stores, and shopping malls are no longer the consumer outlets that are trying to use psychology to make consumers stay longer and buy more merchandise. Now restaurants have gotten in on the action, going to great lengths in order to use consumer psychology, menu engineering, and behavioral tricks to help separate us from more of our hard earned money.

Whether it’s the setting at the restaurant or the layout of the menu, restaurants have been hard at work trying to understand what makes people spend more money on each visit. Understanding how consumer psychology plays a part in our shopping decisions can help you save money while eating at a restaurant.

Menu design and spending

No dollar signs on menus. There are very few dollar signs on menus in a restaurant. This is especially true for national chain restaurants. Using casino chips instead of real dollars makes you less cognizant of how much time you are actually spending at the casino. The same is true for the lack of dollar signs on the menu next to the items’ prices. Dollar signs can make you aware of how much these items are truly costing you. Leaving the dollar signs and often times even the decimal and cents off the restaurant menus help keep the prices more abstract and seem less threatening.

Descriptive names. The names of products on the menu also matter to consumers. Have you ever noticed patriotic or funny names for food on the menu? According to a Cornell University study, people are 27% more likely to purchase an item from a restaurant’s menu that has a descriptive or creative name than one with a more normal name. The study also found that restaurants typically charge a premium of 10% or more for these items.

Prices are staggered. Have you ever noticed that the price of items on a restaurant’s menu is often staggered as you look down the page? This menu trick is done on purpose by the folks who practice menu engineering. Restaurant owners don’t want to you to be able to simply look straight down the page and easily compare prices from one item to the next. Staggering the items breaks up the flow of your eyes as you look down the page.

Boxing money makers. The location on a restaurant’s menu for specific items can be a big influence on how often patrons will purchase an item. Restaurants tend to put their most profitable item in the upper right hand corner of the menu where our eyes have a natural tendency to be drawn to first. A box on the menu screams for our attention, as well. You will often see high profit margin items being called out in a box on the menu as well.

Restaurant setting and spending

Background music. The level of music that a store plays over its loudspeakers and how that affects customers’ shopping habits has been studied for decades. Reserch has shown that when slower music is played in grocery stores and restaurants, customers spend more time and money there. One study from Loyola University estimated that restaurants and stores which play slow music see a 38% increase in sales over stores that choose to play loud or fast paced music. Restaurants tend to see longer wait times at tables and higher bills when slower music is played.

Size of your drinking glass. According to studies conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, people consume a larger amount of a drink when they are given a short, wide glass instead of a tall, narrow glass. We have a vertical bias over horizontal objects which explain our tendency to focus on an object’s height. So, the illusion in a restaurant is that you receive more of a beverage when it is served in a tall glass. Bartenders have also been found to pour more than the set limit of drinks in a short, wide glass.

Size of your plate. When restaurants offer two sizes of the same item, they often want you to purchase the smaller one contrary to typical thoughts. For example, many restaurants may hope that you purchase two small salads that costs $9 each instead of buying a large salad that costs $12 and splitting it between two people. The cost of extra ingredients for the larger salad is negligible, and the extra money spent on the wrong size item is pure profit for the restaurant though.

Take home lessons

So, what does this mean for you, the average consumer, who is trying to save his or her hard earned money? Like G.I. Joe used to during the Saturday morning cartoons, “Knowing is half the battle.” Now you know a few things to look for when you enter a restaurant. Simply walking into a restaurant and ordering without giving much thought is a recipe that could cost you a lot of money in the long run.

Now it’s up to you to use that knowledge and not to be fooled by simple psychological tricks that are designed to separate you from your money. By understanding a little of the consumer psychology used against you, you can be a much better shopper who enjoys a night out while still saving money.

Do you think that simple things such as leaving the dollar sign off a menu or staggering the prices make you spend more at a restaurant? What other psychological and behavioral tricks have you seen retailers use against consumers?

Published on January 10th, 2012
Modified on January 13th, 2012 - 7 Comments
Filed under: Consumer, Frugality

About the author: is a freelance writer who has written extensively for many financial websites and publications. Hank holds a Master's Degree in Finance and is actively pursuing Certified Financial Planner status.

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7 Responses to “Restaurant Tricks That Make You Spend More”

  1. 1
    LL Says:

    I worked in a restaurant for 5 years. We often held contests to see who could sell the most of a particular item over a weekend. Management would tell the servers that people were most likely to remember the first and last thing you mention when giving the daily specials. We’d mention the contest item at the beginning, and again at the end of the ’specials talk’. We also found that people were more likely to order items that we described with details. ‘Made fresh with real strawberries’ always boosted sales of dacquiris. There was nothing underhanded about it, though. :)

  2. 2
    KGreen Says:

    Yeah, I believe these strategies and methods restaurants use are effective to make people spend more money. Although, for me I think it all boils down to what truly sounds good to eat at the moment. And there are certain restaurants where I order the same thing every single time I go there.

  3. 3
    Travis @DebtChronicles Says:

    Ooooooh, boxes with pictures….I’m always drawn to those menu items for some reason. I’m on to your restaurants, I’ll be better prepared the next time I’m looking at a menu.

  4. 4
    Maggie@SquarePennies Says:

    Leaving the dollar sign off doesn’t affect me as far as I can tell. They definitely try to confuse you with the menu layout though. When I find something that sounds good I don’t bother to read the rest of the menu because it’s too confusing. I notice they hide specials at the back of the menus fairly often.

  5. 5
    Charles Says:

    None of these items are new, these have been going on for a long time.

    Other ways its done is through the food itself, whether adding more salt and sucrose into an item, showing images that are far from the reality of what you will be served, and sense of smell.

    I’ve done mystery shopping in the past at restaurants and other ways is controlling the timing of when items are brought out, “frosty” glasses that your drink is served in, or decor used in the restaurant (eg: Ever wonder why many McDonalds now have fancier bathrooms than most any other fast-food restaurant).

    The real way to win is to move the home front of the battle to your kitchen. A couple weeks ago we made beef bourguignon that was so much better than what we’ve had at any reasonably priced restaurant and cheaper on a per-meal basis.

  6. 6
    Steady Says:

    Offering the “special” without including the cost……so I have to ask for it. Also, pushing an appetizer and pushing dessert. Asking, “Would you like…….with that?” as if it were free. Claiming that, “A lot of customers are ordering………:” to make one feel like they should go along with the crowd.

  7. 7
    Kris @ Simple Island Living Says:

    Worked in bars and restaurants – best way to get people to drink more is to offer salty snacks. Best way to get people to order food is to have them drink more. Of course, then there’s the fine line of cutting off someone who has had too much – all your tips go away right there.

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