What is the most powerful psychoactive stimulant that is widely available? The effect of only 25mg can be detected by is impact on the body? It changes the conductance of our skin and increases the cortisol level in our saliva. It releases dopamine to the prefrontal cortex and stimulates us. Higher dopamine levels are associated with impulsive behaviour and decreased self- control. It is unregulated and available without prescription. 85% of Americans take it every day.
The answer of course is caffeine. Available in coffee, tea, soda’s and from chemists. Coffee is the source of choice in the West but in Asia it is tea. Caffeine makes us more alert. It can stimulate the memory and increase our attention. It can also increase our arousal. The average cup of coffee contains at least 60mg. At that level it stimulates “excitement arousal”. We are stimulated but not in a negative way. Above 300mg it can create “tense” arousal, anxiety, which is more dangerous to our health. But does a cup of coffee influence our shopping behaviour?
In a study just published in the Journal of Marketing researchers have looked at this. There are two different arguments. One is that the stimulant could increase concentration. This would make us more rational and deliberative in our purchase decisions. Alternatively the emotional impact would make us more impulsive shoppers. The researchers argue for the latter. They showed that a single cup of coffee increases impulse purchases.
In household goods and department stores in France and Spain they offered some shoppers a cup of strong coffee as they entered. Others were offered either a decaffeinated coffee or a bottle of water. They recorded the number of items subsequently purchased and the amount spent. They also gave people a short questionnaire which measured their level of arousal.
The results are surprising. With caffeine the amount spent always increased. Often the expenditure doubled as did the number of items. These are stores with low priced items and even with caffeine the total expenditure was only €27. People tended to pick up an extra item if they had had a cup of coffee. This was not a placebo effect. Drinking a decaffeinated coffee did not change the purchases. Those who had the caffeine felt more aroused. This was shown to be an intermediate step in the process.
The researchers were not able to copy or scan the customers receipts. That would have been an invasion of privacy. They could in at least one study look at the broad categories of purchase. A single cup of coffee meant people bought more “hedonistic” products. Given the nature of the stores this meant that people bought more scented candles. They bought more fragrances and decorative items. They did not buy more utilitarian products such notebooks, kitchen tools or storage baskets. Perfumes and scents can create arousal not only caffeine. Other studies have shown that the right scents can increase purchases of buttery, salted popcorn, chocolate and even luxury vacations! It seems that coffee stimulates us to indulge ourselves. Personally, being an enthusiastic home chef, I would have bought more kitchen equipment!
Is this good or bad news for Shoppers?
There are close to 40,000 coffee shops in America. But Dublin has the highest density of stores per head of the population. The number of coffee shops is proliferating everywhere. Starbucks are in every shopping mall. They are even opening “pick up “ stores across the US, so we can get our drugs more quickly (Newsletter #054). Are the coffee shops opened for the benefit of the consumer or the stores that surround them?
We all reach for a coffee when our energy levels start to flag. We stop in the middle of a busy shopping day to be refreshed. We want to go on shopping. While we drink our coffee we review our shopping list. Are we aware that because of the coffee, we may end up indulging ourselves with items that are not on the list?
It seems that we are no safer if we shop at home. The researchers went on to create a simulated internet shopping experience. Some of the respondents were given a caffeinated coffee, others a decaffeinated. They waited for ten minutes to ensure that caffeine was having its effect. They were then given a shopping task. The results were the same. Those who were aroused tended to spend more. They bought more items. They extra items were more “hedonistic”.
The study shows that there is one way to mitigate the effect. The researchers asked about coffee drinking habits. They found the impact of their cup of coffee declined in regular drinkers. Anything above an average of 2.1 coffees a day meant people still spent more, but less than those below 2.1 cups per day. Research on coffee addiction shows that, like all drugs, if we are regular “user” we need bigger doses to get our “fix”. If you already drink two cups a day an extra one will not raise your arousal level as much.
Globally that 2 cups per day is not a lot. Europe is the largest consumer of coffee. Countries like the Netherlands average 4 cups per day. It ranks number one in terms of cups per head. In Norway 80% of the population are drinking between four and five cups per day. Interestingly consumption in Switzerland varies dramatically by linguistic region. Researchers measured average daily caffeine intake. The Germany speaking community averaged 204mg per day. The French speakers 170mg per day and the Italian speakers only 136mg. All however were drinking enough to mitigate that extra cup before shopping!!
More Coffee When you are Older?
The idea of “morning people” and “evening people” is true. In Newsletter #049 I talked about these chronotypes. They are part of our evolution. Age impacts them. More older people become morning rather than evening types. The difference between being alert in the morning and less so in the afternoon also increases. We do need our afternoon nap! If we take cognitive tests in the morning we performing as well as our younger selves. Taking the tests in the afternoon shows a relative decline. Unless that is they have a cup of coffee. The stimulant can remove the effect!