High Streets Initiative

What makes shoppers tick? How to better understand customers

Business Advice | 10 April 2017 | 7 years ago

It is possible to market products to peoples’ basic evolutionary needs
Here, human behavioural expert Philip Adcock tells Business Advice readers how to better understand customers and their behaviour.

Over the past 100 years, psychologists have identified six different aspects of human behaviour that distinguish human minds from each other. In his book Must-Have, author Geoffrey Miller refers to them as general intelligence, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability.

But what has this got to do with high street shopping? Well, these indicators are an excellent means of linking the evolutionary needs of humankind (survival, mating and sociability) with modern-day consumer narcissism.

Simply put, people will buy items to meet their evolutionary needs, and almost any purchase made meets one of the six fitness indicators.

it’s therefore possible to market products based on these indicators, and time spent considering this can reap huge rewards when the time comes to understand customers and, crucially, increase sales.

General intelligence

According to Miller, general intelligence correlates positively with overall brain size, physical health, mental health and attractiveness. it’s no coincidence that shoppers are targeted with intelligence-related claims about products: there are smart foods, energy drinks and even smart drugs.

If you can make your customers think that buying or using a certain product will help them appear more intelligent, then theyll be hooked. What’s more, theyll be hooked at a level well below any conscious awareness. Remember, the key to targeting fitness indicators is to make us think about how others perceive us.


This relates to the curiosity, novelty seeking and broadmindedness of people, but it’s something that companies really have yet to start targeting. Research has identified that most purchases are driven by habit, so if you want to understand customers and get them to try new things, you need to snap them out of the autopilot mode.

One sure-fire way to achieve this is to have shoppers notice things that are out of the ordinary. First, the brain will immediately run the new and different object by our fight, flight or find a mate centre.

Once attention has been grabbed, the shopper is then open to suggestion in terms of the item meeting one of the fitness indicators, and signals that portray messages like ‘stand out from the crowd? appeal to their perceived sense of broadmindedness.


Extraversion indicates the degree to which a person is outgoing and socially confident. Shoppers exhibit extraversion by purchasing products that proclaim this, such as middle-aged men deviating from their normal conservative wardrobe to wear a bright shirt when playing golf.

This act has little or nothing to do with the activity, however it does indicate to the other players that they’re a witty, socially confident person. Whether this is true is open to question, but it does help sell a lot of very brightly coloured clothes!

To appeal to a sense of extraversion, you need to convince shoppers that your products are designed and developed for them and them alone, and help them to demonstrate their sociability and confidence.


Conscientiousness includes such characteristics as reliability, integrity and trustworthiness. Much of our adult life is spent trying to portray to others just how conscientious we are, which is fed by a wealth of products to demonstrate this, from cleaning products to personal grooming items.

To really appeal to conscientiousness, you need to focus on your customers? older, more emotional, brains. Instead of expecting shoppers to read information and learn? about products, present them with multi-sensory scenarios that our older brains will subconsciously judge and use to decide on courses of action. Rest assured, those courses of action will often include buying something represented by the scenario with which they are presented.


A key aspect of human survival is getting along with others, and thus we like to exhibit agreeableness. So many products can be bought to tell others that we are a person easy to get along with, from the heart-shaped box of Thorntons chocolates to Fairy Soft non-bio washing liquid.

From a shopping perspective, agreeableness manifests itself mostly in connection with gift giving. Many retailers and brands couldnt survive if it wasnt for ritualised gifting occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and numerous others. Appealing to this part of the shopper’s brain can be an important sales strategy.

Emotional stability

The final fitness indicator is emotional stability, which refers to our resilience, how resistant we are to stress and how quickly we can mentally recover from a setback.

Emotional stability can play a major role in influencing what we buy — even the most level-headed of us are prone to make decisions based on it.

We may actively shop for products that display our own emotional stability like the right choice of wine and food to serve at a dinner party, for example.

Conversely, we sometimes purchase products to portray an image of emotional instability, such as buying an off-the-wall ringtone for our mobile phone.

To target this indicator, you need to think about your customers? emotions and find motives that cause your product to appeal to them — which isnt necessarily via price, but more in the way it makes them feel.

In conclusion, shoppers who buy certain items do so in the firm belief this will alter other people’s perceptions of them. Whether people’s perceptions change is somewhat irrelevant.

The fact that the shopper believes this is the very reason why the purchase of a product serves a fitness-indicator purpose, and why you need to be thinking about these to better understand your customers.

Phillip Adcock is a commercial psychologist and author of Supermarket Shoppology and Master Your Brain.

Want to learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing small independent retailers on Britain’s high street? Read more from our campaign.

This article is part of a wider campaign called the High Streets Initiative, a new section of Business Advice championing independent and small retailers by identifying issues that put Britain’s high streets under pressure.Visitour High Streets Initiative section to find out more.

How can the high street future-proof itself for the future? Have your say by taking our quick two-minute survey.

Related Topics

COVID-19: Tier 4 restrictions & advice for retailers planning for 2021
29 December 2020

COVID-19: Tier 4 restrictions & advice for retailers planning for 2021

Read More →
Black Friday 2020: Retailers now use publicly available data to gain advantage
3 December 2020

Black Friday 2020: Retailers now use publicly available data to gain advantage

Read More →
Second lockdown: 5 tips to retain Christmas shoppers
3 November 2020

Second lockdown: 5 tips to retain Christmas shoppers

Read More →
NEWS: Oasis and Warehouse fall into administration during COVID-19
16 April 2020

NEWS: Oasis and Warehouse fall into administration during COVID-19

Read More →
NEWS: Debenhams files for administration for the second time this year
7 April 2020

NEWS: Debenhams files for administration for the second time this year

Read More →
Is COVID-19 taking out the weaker retailers?
1 April 2020

Is COVID-19 taking out the weaker retailers?

Read More →

If you enjoy reading our articles,
why not sign up for our newsletter?

We commit to just delivering high-quality material that is specially crafted for our audience.

Join Our Newsletter