By Naomi Canton

Have you ever assumed something was a bargain just because the price was written in red? Walked out of a shop because the sales assistant was too chatty? Or avoided shops during the festive season because Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime doesn’t match your mood?

If so, you’re not alone. In fact, your behaviour reflects that of a typical consumer, according to one of the world’s leading experts in consumer psychology, Nancy Puccinelli, Fellow in Consumer Marketing at Saïd Business School. It turns out the psychology of shopping is more counterintuitive than you might think — but, perhaps unsurprisingly, gender is a major factor.

“Women process information in retail in much more depth than their male counterparts do,” Puccinelli says, referring to a recent study she co-authored — Are Men Seduced by Red? The Effect of Red Versus Black Prices on Price Perceptions — published in The Journal of Retailing. In a series of experiments conducted using graduate students at Philadelphia University, researchers discovered that when men saw an advertisement with the prices written in red, they believed that that retailer was offering greater price savings than those printed in black. Not only that, they felt very positive about making a purchase, too.

For women, on the other hand, the red had no effect. On the contrary, in fact: it made them suspicious. “If you show a woman an ad in red, the woman is sceptical of what is really going on and thinks she has to be extra vigilant. ‘Am I getting tricked?’ she asks herself,” explains Puccinelli, who holds a PhD in Psychology from Harvard. “Men are less practised shoppers and they see the red as a useful shortcut.”

Women also seem to have a far more accurate recall of the prices in advertisements than men. “It could simply be that men are not motivated to think deeply about an advert so they don’t process them in depth — or don’t care,” Puccinelli says. “When we told men they have to pay attention, the effect of the colour red went away. Motivate them and make it important, and they are much better shoppers.”

In another study, Puccinelli found that sales people that can correctly read the mood and non-verbal cues of customers are perceived by the customer to be providing a better service. “This finding flies in the face of retailers who think they need to provide incentives to sales people to always be friendly and happy,” she explains. “It suggests that customers don’t always want a super-happy salesperson.”

“When I looked at people in a bad mood and asked what kind of retail environment they wanted, they said if it’s positive they don’t like it and won’t buy anything,” she says.

The key to a successful sale, then, is to read the mood of the customer and then to either match their mood or tone down a positive feeling, she explains. “It is not advisable to match their anger,” she says. “But if someone is in a bad mood or a rush they want a sympathetic sales person, to be left alone or to be served more efficiently. They don’t want to chat and answer questions about their family.”

And while many retail managers are convinced that dazzling decorations, smiling shopkeepers in red Santa hats, and recordings of Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is You will pull customers in during the festive season, ironically it is quite the reverse, according to Puccinelli. “Shops tend to create very positive upbeat retail environments in the run-up to the holidays but the customer is often highly stressed, anxious and half-depressed with financial concerns,” she explains. “Ultimately, it works against the retailer.”

Then, of course, there are factors which retailers can’t control — like the unpredictable British weather — that can also have a huge impact on the mood of shoppers. Although she’s not yet done any specific research on the impact of the prolonged heat wave that gripped Britain for most of this summer, she predicts it will have greatly boosted retail sales since 60 to 80 per cent of consumer decisions are made at the point of purchase. “In nice weather more people are out and about seeing products and shopping and so that is going to increase sales,” she explains. “Rain and snow hits retailers very badly, as we saw in the cold spring.”

But perhaps the biggest problems facing retail right now is austerity. Unsurprisingly, luxury and high-end products such as perfumes, cars and clothes suffer, she says — though some thrive. Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder, claims you can judge the economic climate by the sale of red lipstick. The premise is that women will treat themselves to a lipstick instead of buying something more expensive during an economic downturn.

“It’s called the lipstick effect in a recession when we see an increase in the sale of colour cosmetics,” Puccinelli explains. “It’s interesting, because mascara takes a hit but eyeshadow, lipstick and blusher don’t. You also see an increase in the sale of fast food, alcohol and confectionary, too. They all thrive. In spring 2009 Americans were using these products to pick up their mood. They couldn’t afford a fancy restaurant, but they could afford McDonald’s or a Cadbury’s chocolate.”

And whilst Puccinelli believes women buy the red lipstick to cheer themselves up, some of her colleagues have found that women use it to make themselves more conspicuous and attractive to find a man in times of austerity. With Britain now forecast to be heading for its fastest expansion since the financial meltdown of 2008, it will be interesting to see if red lipstick will quietly go out of fashion. Red price stickers, though, are probably here to stay.