July 31st, 2014 by Maria Minsker

Ever find yourself tempted to order that funky-sounding thing on the menu, just because it sounds funky? Apparently, you’re not alone! Turns out, we humans are pretty predictable creatures, and restaurant marketers are on to us. According to a new study of 217 menus and 300 diners conducted by researchers from Cornell University and published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, restaurants pull all kinds of tricks to get patrons to fork over the extra bucks.

When it comes to those fancy french dishes that no one can pronounce, restaurant goers are likely to spend up to 12 percent more, the survey found. The more foreign it sounds, the more customers are willing to pay. But we like embellishment in English too–a simple sounding “fish filet” might not garner too many bites, but call it a “succulent italian seafood filet” and orders will come swimming in. “Sales of these renamed items with descriptions rose by 28% and were rated as tastier, even though the recipes before and after were identical,” the report said.

Unsurprisingly, items that appear in distinct fonts or colors are meant to be attention grabbers as well, and are often the most expensive things on the menu. Though it’s a more subtle tactic, placing an item on the bottom right of a menu is usually a ploy as well. According to The Guardian, studies have shown that upon opening a menu, we tend to gravitate toward the upper right-hand corner first. This is often where the anchor–or the most profitable item–is located, The Guardian reports. Diners are likely to order this eye-catching dish, but even if they don’t, this carefully placed, expensive option makes all the other meals appear more affordable, and makes customers spend more. Don’t want to fall into this trap? Look at the bottom left–that’s where the most affordable item is likely to appear.

And price order matters as well. Patrons are often reluctant to buy the most expensive bottle of wine, but don’t want to order the cheapest one either, and sommeliers are well aware of this. That’s why the second cheapest bottle typically gets the biggest markup. The same applies to food. The cheapest dish might not be the most appealing, but the second or third cheapest ones usually get a lot of attention.

Even something as minor as alignment could make a difference, additional studies suggest. Centre-aligned menus, for example, make it more difficult to compare prices, but right-justified menus are more comparison friendly.

Is this starting to sound more like manipulation than marketing? I would say so, but in the age of Yelp and Google Reviews, these tricks are going to become obsolete very soon. Most consumers scope out a restaurant long before they get there, and are ready to order the items that have hit a high note with previous visitors before seeing a physical menu. So while delicious sounding dish descriptions are always welcome, some of the sneakier stuff, in my opinion, is not. Transparency trumps trickery, and in the long run, it’s what keeps customers coming back.

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