Manipulating Restaurant Customers

business_ethics_highlights_2The piece below is about the ‘tricks’ restaurants use to get us to spend more — tricks like inserting a more expensive item into your menu, just to make other items seem like a bargain. (Relatedly, see also “Manipulating Consumers With Prices that End in ‘.99′”) The key question for discussion: are these practices unethical? On one hand, consumer choice is supposed to be based on what consumers actually value. These tactics are effective in getting people to spend more without getting more of what they value. On the other hand, these tactics don’t involve any literal fraud or deception. They merely take advantage of quirks of human perception and failures of rational decision-making.

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LINK: Menu science: The subtle ways restaurants get you to spend more (by Stephanie Bank for the Globe and Mail)

…The truth is, we all fall for these tricks regardless of intelligence. But getting some insight into how restaurants use menu engineering already puts you ahead of the curve. If increasing your awareness isn’t enough there are a few things you can try. Challenge yourself to look past the menu and decide what to eat based on the food rather than deceptive pricing, placement or seductive descriptions…

What do you think?


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5 comments

  1. I honestly don’t know (yet?) what to say about this topic. But on the face of it, each of the behaviours mentioned is both a) really common and b) anti-capitalistic. Profit should come from providing value.

  2. lexmm

    The way I’ve approached similar topics with my students is to ask whether there is a meaningful distinction between _taking advantage of_ a (pre-existing) propensity toward irrational decision making (in an otherwise competent adult person) and _impairing_ a person’s ability to make a rational decision. It bears a(n at least) superficial resemblance to the act/omission distinction—about which, of course, there is disagreement over meaningfulness.

  3. That’s a good start. I’d want to ask, “is this how you want to focus your energies? Tweaking your menu font, rather than tweaking your dishes?”

  4. We need to expand the everyday (and professional) vocabulary, to move beyond “ethical vs unethical.” In particular, I’d like to rehabilitate the word “unseemly.” As in, I’m not sure boosting sales by fiddling with how prices are presented is unethical, but it does seem *unseemly.*”

  5. lexmm

    I liked that you described it as anti-capitalistic because it invites a discussion about the _ethos_ of capitalism. Ethical/unethical discussions too readily collapse into shouldn’t/should-be-illegal discussions. We can talk about ethics as something other than a guide to public policy or (worse) a kind of parallel legal system. Whatever the legal backdrop, how should we think about what we’re doing in business? What habits and dispositions should we bring to transacting with others or to organizational life in business?

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