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How Restaurants Use Menu Psychology to Make You Spend More

Restaurant menu psychology
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When you sit down at a restaurant and open the menu, you might think you’re simply choosing what sounds most appetizing. But behind that menu lies a carefully crafted strategy designed to influence your choices and encourage you to spend more. Drawing on my 10 years of experience in marketing and advertising, with a special interest in consumer psychology, I will reveal the subtle yet powerful art known as menu psychology. This strategy leverages various design elements and psychological principles to guide your decisions, from the type of dishes you select to how much you ultimately spend.

In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of menu psychology and the tricks that restaurants use to make you spend more. Get ready to view your favorite menus in a whole new light!

What is menu psychology?

Menu psychology is the strategic design and organisation of restaurant menus to subtly influence customer behavior and increase sales. Sometimes also referred to as “menu engineering”, it involves a combination of visual, linguistic, and pricing techniques aimed at guiding diners towards specific dishes and drinks, often the ones that are most profitable for the restaurant.

At its core, menu psychology takes advantage of human psychology to make certain items more appealing, encourage higher spending. This approach encompasses various elements, such as the placement of items, the use of descriptive language, pricing strategies, and visual cues like color and font.

13 ways restaurants use menu psychology to make you spend more

1. Strategic product placement

Just like supermarkets put profitable items at eye level, restaurants design their menus to make the most of your gaze. Here are two common ways they do this to make you spend more:

  • The Golden Triangle: The natural reading pattern includes moving to the middle of the menu first, then to the top right corner, and finally to the top left corner. This area, known as the “Golden Triangle,” is prime real estate for placing high-profit items. By positioning the most profitable and enticing dishes in these key spots, restaurants can significantly increase the likelihood that you will choose these items, thereby boosting overall sales and profitability.
  • Item order: We are subconsciously more likely to order the top two items in each menu section. Knowing this, restaurant owners tend to list their highest-margin dishes first. However, some people tend to pick the bottom option, so the last item in each section is usually a restaurant’s third most cost-effective dish.

2. Descriptive language

Restaurants strategically use vivid descriptions and nostalgic names to enhance the appeal of their menu offerings. By crafting descriptions that evoke sensory experiences—such as “succulent, slow-roasted prime rib” or “crispy, golden-brown grandma’s fried chicken”—and incorporating nostalgic names like “Grandma’s Secret Recipe Apple Pie” or “Childhood Favorite Mac and Cheese,” restaurants connect with customers emotionally. 

These techniques not only make dishes more enticing but also evoke feelings of nostalgia and comfort. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, nostalgia’s emotional pull is a major reason why it’s widely used in marketing, including menu design, to encourage people to spend money.

3. Sneaky pricing tactics

Clever pricing tactics are an essential part of menu psychology to influence customers’ spending decisions. Two common pricing strategies are decoy pricing and price anchoring.

  • Decoy pricing: This involves presenting three price options to lure customers into choosing the middle option, which the restaurant wants to sell most. For instance, offering a basic steak for $20, a premium steak for $50, and a mid-range steak for $35. The mid-range option appears to offer the best value, making it the most popular choice.
  • Price anchoring: This strategy sets a high initial price to make other items seem more affordable by comparison. For example, listing a $70 lobster dish at the top of the menu makes a $50 fish dish appear more reasonable. This tactic encourages customers to spend more by making the less expensive option feel like a good deal. 

4. Price presentation

In addition to the pricing tactics above, restaurants are careful with how they present the prices on menus. This aims to make prices seem less intimidating and more attractive to customers. Two common methods are removing currency symbols and using just-below pricing.

  • Removing currency symbols: By omitting the currency symbol (e.g., $), prices can appear less formal and more approachable. For example, instead of listing a dish as $20, a restaurant might simply use “20.” This subtle change can make the price seem less significant and encourage customers to spend more freely. According to research from the Cornell University, guests given a menu without dollar signs spent significantly more than those who received a menu with them.
  • Just-below pricing: Setting prices just below a round number, such as $19.99 instead of $20, makes the price seem lower due to the psychological impact of the left digit. In addition, prices that end in .95 instead of .99 are more effective, because they feel “friendlier” to customers. However, high-end restaurants that want to focus on quality over value tend to do the opposite – they use round numbers to add an air of sophistication.

5. Bundling items

How many times have you ordered a meal deal even when you didn’t really need all the items included? Restaurants, especially fast food joints, often use bundling items to entice customers and increase sales. By offering combo deals, such as a burger with fries and a drink at a lower price than if purchased separately, they create a perception of value. This encourages customers to spend more, thinking they are getting a better deal.

6. Visual elements

Restaurants strategically employ visual elements to emphasise menu items and attract customers’ attention. These elements include boxes, bold fonts, varied colors, and appetising images designed to highlight specific dishes.

Most items on menu will also have similar lengths to fit in with the general layout of the page. Something that doesn’t fit the pattern is likely to catch out attention. Knowing this, restaurants use menu psychology to write longer descriptions for the dishes they want to sell more of (i.e. items with the highest profit margins).

7. Strategic use of images

While casual dining establishments often use photos to showcase their dishes and entice customers visually, high-end restaurants typically refrain from using photos. This approach maintains an air of sophistication and allows customers to focus on the menu descriptions and the restaurant’s ambiance. 

According to a study by Durham University Business School, the impact of photos on menu items varies depending on the complexity of the dish name. For straightforward names like “hamburger,” adding a picture tends to increase the likelihood of a diner ordering the dish. However, for items with more complex names like “Beef Madness,” photos can have the opposite effect. The study suggests that if a picture is used next to a menu item with a vague description, it may disappoint diners if the actual dish does not match their expectations based on the image.

8. Limited choices

Menu psychology suggests that limiting the number of options in a menu can enhance the dining experience by making decision-making easier and more enjoyable for customers. The “paradox of choice” theory proposes that too many options can overwhelm diners. Therefore, restaurants often streamline their menus to approximately seven items per category. Seven is considered optimal because it balances variety and simplicity, avoiding both decision paralysis from too many choices and dissatisfaction from too few.

9. Appetite-stimulating colours

Restaurants strategically use colors on their menus to captivate attention and stimulate appetite among diners. The colors on a menu can significantly influence what we order: green implies freshness, orange stimulates the appetite, yellow attracts attention with its cheerful hue, and red encourages action, often persuading customers to choose dishes with the highest profit margins.

10. Menu material

Restaurant menu psychology extends beyond the written content — it includes the material the menu is printed on. High-end restaurants signal their food quality with leather and thick paper menus, while more affordable establishments use vinyl to subtly suggest they offer good bargains.

11. Brand names

Some surveys also suggest that brand names in menu descriptions encourage customer spending. For example, 62% of consumers say they prefer to order desserts with brand-name ingredients at restaurants, according to a recent Technomic Dessert Consumer Trend Report. This is why restaurants like T.G.I Fridays mention brands like Frank’s RedHot sauce, Oreo, and specific alcohol brands used in their cocktails on their menus.

12. Credit card logos

In his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini discusses research showing that the presence of credit card logos on payment trays can lead to larger tips for servers. This research suggests that displaying these logos makes customers feel more financially flexible and willing to spend more. While the study focused on payment trays, displaying credit card logos on restaurant menus can have a similar effect.

Related: Credit card psychology: How credit cards influence your spending habits

13. Upselling (alcoholic drinks)

Alcoholic drinks often have the highest profit margins in restaurants, making them a key focus for upselling. To capitalise on this, many establishments include wine pairing suggestions on their menus. By recommending specific wines or cocktails to accompany certain dishes, restaurants not only enhance the dining experience but also encourage customers to order higher-margin beverages.

Conclusion

Restaurant menu psychology is the art of designing menus to subtly influence your choices and spending. From the colors and descriptions used to the strategic placement of high-profit items and other subtle cues, every detail is crafted to guide your decisions. Understanding these psychological tricks reveals how restaurants encourage you to order more and spend more. Next time you dine out, see how many of these tricks you can spot!

Menu psychology tricks

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