A restaurant menu is no big deal, right? It's just a list of the food items that a restaurant offers its customers. Sure it is. Plus a whole lot more.
Before menus ever make it to the printer, restaurant owners hire menu engineers and consultants to bury super sneaky psychological tricks into the pretty pictures and mouth-watering descriptions for one reason only — to get you to spend more money.
Want to beat restaurants at their own game? Here's your cheat sheet listing the sneakiest of sneaky tricks.
Dollar signs. Sophisticated research tells restaurants to stop including dollars signs on their menus because a dollar sign — or even the word "dollar" spelled out instead — triggers negative feelings associated with paying. Both the sign and the word remind customers that they're spending money. (Well, imagine that!)
Numbers 9 and 5. Menu designers work under a strict list of rules, one of which has to do with the number 9. Consumers have been taught to believe that prices that end with 9, such as $7.99, offer value but not necessarily quality. And get this, prices that end in .95 instead of .99 are more effective, meaning subconsciously, customers are more likely to choose them because the way the price appears to be friendlier.
Flowery language. Further research has revealed to restauranteurs that beautifully written descriptions of food choices appeal to unsuspecting customers. And that descriptive menu labels, in one impressive study, increased sales by 27 percent, as compared to food items without fabulously written descriptions.
Here's an example: Instead of the menu listing simply "Crab Cakes," naming them "Maryland-style crab cakes made by hand, with sweet jumbo crab meat, a touch of mayonnaise, our secret blend of seasonings and golden cracker crumbs for a rich, tender taste," a customer cannot help but have a sensory experience just reading the description. That kind of flowery language gives customers satisfaction that prompts them to order, without much thought for what it will cost.
Bring on the fonts. When menu items are bolded, printed in a different color or enhanced with images, fancy fonts, photos, or — the big one — isolated in a separate box, they look like they're a lot more special than the other cheeky items that are part of a boring list on the other side of the menu. If the "All-Star Perfect All-Beef Burge"r gets its own box and print color, it's got to be well worth the $12.95 price. Ha! That's what they're working so hard to convince you.
Food decoys. No kidding, that's what they're called by the experts — decoys to manipulate you into doing their bidding. Here's how it works: You sit down, open the menu and lock eyeballs with the $11.95 patty melt, sans description. Just a patty melt for $12. You scoff. Ha! Not me. Then your eyes wander over to the boxed item with a photo of the world's most perfect burger (titled accordingly) that makes you salivate. And it's $16.95 complete with french fries and Jack Daniel's dipping sauce.
No way! You know what they're doing here. You make your decision. It'll be the patty melt, no fries no sauce. And aren't you clever? Well, not so fast, buckaroo. You just played into their hands and they're laughing all the way to the bank! That burger that no one ever orders is a decoy. Priced at $17, it's so ridiculous, customers laugh silently and then have no problem at all with a $12 patty melt.
Lovely ambiance. The wall colors, choice of finishes, furniture style, music, impeccable taste throughout — all of the things that set the ambiance are there for one reason: to make us willing to spend more. Playing classical music sets us up to accept higher prices. And they know that playing less sophisticated music causes people to spend less.
As you notice these tricks, concentrate on them momentarily. Then go rogue by making up your own mind without feeling manipulated into buying a pricey patty melt or crab cakes, uh ... I mean the delectable Maryland-style crab cakes.
Would you like more information? Log on to EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com, "Ask Mary a Question," or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of Debt-Proof Living, a personal finance member website and the author of the book Debt-Proof Living, Revell 2014. To find out more about Mary visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.