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The Positive Psychology of Shopping

written by Sherri Fisher 5 June 2007

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

I like to think of myself as a modern shopper.  I browse online, add to my shopping cart, and my purchases are delivered to me.  No crowds, no door dings from the parking lot, and no grouchy sales associates. With the exception of grocery shopping and trips to the drugstore, I rarely can be found in a retail store.  In fact, it has been so long since I have been in a mall that I wonder how they stay in business. I am not alone in wondering this.  As a result, the competition for consumer spending—and marketing to consumer emotions—are increasingly critical to retail success. 

This past weekend, a crashed computer sent me out to America’s largest electronics retailer, Best Buy. Armed with the sales circular and a budget, I walked into a store where previously I have had frustrating experiences that have sent me off to competitors.  But this time was different. 

Smiling Best Buy Helpers

Smiling Best Buy Helpers

First of all, the sales associates were happy.  At least they seemed to be. They smiled and were nice to the customers. Employees called each other by name and laughed and joked with each other. Happiness, like other emotions is contagious. I walked to the nearest blue-shirted person in the computer department.  Tim was answering questions for another customer.  He asked her if she would mind while he quickly checked in with me, and she agreed.  I explained that I was looking for a notebook computer I had seen in their ad. “So is this customer.  I’d be happy for you to listen in while I answer her questions.  I’m not working on commission and I’m here to help you– both of you.” It was like a private class with an expert teacher. 


Gratitude is one of my signature strengths, and I could feel warm waves of it broadening my smile and relaxing me.  I was ready to be taught. Not only was Tim knowledgeable about store merchandise, (curiosity being a top VIA strength, I asked lots of questions) he was also able to answer financing and promotional questions, and was more than willing to help me get the best bang for my buck.  My “strategic” talent on Gallup’s Strengthsfinder liked that. The opportunity for relaxation (using your strengths and talents can put one into the flow state) once my talents met my challenges. More importantly, it got me to spend money on more than just a computer. Way to go, Tim!

Geek Squad

Geek Squad

This approach to selling has a name: Customer Centricity.  Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson says, “The way you win the game isn’t the price of the TV… but the experience you give customers once they are in our stores” (Fortune, 4/18/2007). If I had read this before my shopping trip, cynic that I can be, I might have been defensive about all the niceness.  My actual experience in the store, however, was authentically friendly, helpful, and low stress. It was…fun. 


On the way out, the cashier asked if I had had a good time in the store. You bet. I even gave my confession to him that the shopping experience was great for me. In fact, I went to the online survey site printed on my receipt and gave glowing marks to the store and the people who helped me to spend my money there. 

At the 2005 International Positive Psychology Summit, Brad Anderson and Gallup CEO Jim Clifton talked about employee innovation as a way to improve profits in the post-SixSigma world: the emotional experience of the customer. I think it’s working, and I have the Best Buy Rewards credit card to prove it. 

Letting employees help to craft the customer experience (no high pressure sales or tight playing to the script necessary) can create relationships. We like to spend time with people who want to spend time with us.  We even want to help them at their work.  The result is we spend more money when we are happy.  (How much do you spend on a lousy date?) In the end, no matter how much you want the computer or flat screen TV or digital SLR camera, if the price is comparable but then purchasing process is miserable, you might not go back to get the laptop bag, the surround sound system and the super zoom lens.  Those lost sales are preventable. Happy customers stay in the store longer, spend more money while they are there, and are more likely to return…with their rewards credit card. 

Not all stores work on the Centricity model which is much more multileveled and nuanced than I have indicated here.  The store I visited isn’t even on the list of stores that are formally using it.  This store is, however, making me consider Best Buy the first stop for my technology purchases. 

I will be primed for a pleasant experience based on my positive peak-end (Research by Kahneman shows we remember the very good, the very bad and the end of experiences), the shopping experience has been framed for me in terms of teaching and learning—the sharing and application of information. Education, not shopping, is my bag. According to Turner, et al, priming is “the incidental activation of knowledge structures, such as trait concepts and stereotypes, by the current situational context. The activation of these concepts can carry over for a time to exert an unintended passive influence on the interpretation of the behaviour of others.” Passive influences happen without our even realizing it. Keep in mind that I am analyzing my shopping experience after the fact. 

Are you trying to increase your profit margin? Here is the short list of Positive Psychology principles to remember: 

Contagion Theory—Spread Happiness

Peak-end Rule—The Good, the Bad and the End

Use Your Strengths—Character and Capacity

Get into Flow—Where Talents Meet Challenges

Customer Centricity—Relationships Matter (or…Teach Me the Way That I Learn)

Priming—The Positive Set-up for Next Time



Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Kahneman, D. (2002). Maps of bounded rationality: A perspective on intuitive judgment. Nobel Prize Lecture, December 8, 2002.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.

Turner, R. N., Forrester, R., Mulhern, B., & Crisp, R. J. (2005). Impairment of executive abilities following a social category prime. Current Research in Social Psychology, 11(3), 29-38.

Smiling Helpers at Best Buy courtesy of kylemac
Mobile Service Desk at Best Buy (Geek Squad) courtesy of roblawton

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Senia 6 June 2007 - 12:33 am

Sherri, this is by far my favorite article of yours that I’ve ever read. It’s so alive – I feel like I was in the store with you! I love how you drawn in the research references. I also really appreciate how you express your cynicism which, as you say, didn’t really need to be called on because of the apparent realness and authenticity of the employees.

I heard Brad speak also in 2005 at the Gallup conference, and it’s such a pleasure for me to hear you document your great experience there.

My favorite part of his talk at the time was when he described that BestBuy encouraged employee innovation, such as the employee around Christmas time who set up an iPod display at the front of a store because he had noticed the Christmas-presents store traffic was customers coming in, asking directions to the iPod section, walking through the store only to come back with the single iPod. The employee’s display increased iPod sales by some double-digit percentages compared to other BestBuys if I remember the numbers correctly, which led to other BestBuys setting up similar iPod displays.

Sherri 6 June 2007 - 12:29 pm

Thanks, Senia!


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