THE BLOG
06/02/2013 05:47 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2013

Ikea's New Free Food Deal -- and the Powerful Psychology Behind It

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2013-06-02-ScreenShot20130601at11.51.21PM.png This summer, Ikea lets customers eat completely free on certain days. Here's exactly what the deal looks like for the Charlotte Ikea (deals vary slightly by location).


Charlotte, NC
Eat for FREE -- EVERY Thursday and Saturday in June.
Eat for Free in our restaurant by spending $150 in the store and then deducting the cost of your meal from your store receipt upon checking out.

That means customers can get the meatballs, the smoked salmon, the lingonberries, the chicken fingers, and the hazelnut chocolate -- and as long as they eat it on the premises, it's all free.

Ikea seems to understand consumer psychology as this deal hits all the psychological buttons people like me go to graduate school to study about. Here's a rundown.

It's Free
Free is not just any low price, it's a special price. People value it more than they rationally should. Ikea often offers $0.99 mini-breakfasts, but research in consumer psychology shows people put a premium on free. Free has its own value and a warm glow around it. Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely explains the "special price of zero" in his best-selling book Predictably Irrational.

It's Freedom
Ikea not only makes the item free, it gives the customer freedom to get as much food as they want. My Ikea cashier even encouraged me to buy more.

Ikea is offering freedom in a genuine way here. That sets Ikea apart.

Also, it makes customers responsible for how much they save. Instead of considering whether Ikea is offering a good enough deal, customers may ask themselves, "Am I taking enough advantage of this offer?" Customers may even be proud of how much they saved by stuffing their faces.

It's Food
2013-06-02-ScreenShot20130601at11.53.05PM.pngIkea wants you to start your trip eating. You need the calories and caffeine to make it all the way through the showroom and marketplace. Customers can become tired out by making constant decisions and potentially just give up or become too frustrated to shop. Glucose consumption can prevent this depletion and keep customers shopping.

Food and chatting over food also makes people happy. Harvard researchers contacted people on their smart phones at random times during the day. They measured people's momentary happiness and found that people tended to be the happiest when they had just eaten, socialized or had sex. The fact that people are not only eating but feasting on free food may intensify this happiness.

Importantly for Ikea's profits, when people are happy they tend to be less vigilant in their thoughts, which may lead them to buy more.

It's Ikea
Additionally, Ikea is not just any store, it's a special store. People love it, maybe more than they rationally should. Ikea's trustworthy image allows it to offer deals without seeming manipulative. If another company, e.g. a BP gas station, offered a similar deal, it might make customers stop and worry that they were being tricked.

Certain brands activate what is known as 'persuasion knowledge'. This leads customers to be vigilant for persuasion tactics. Ikea tends not to activate 'persuasion knowledge.'

It's Going to Make You Spend Money
The $150 price point may lead people to turn their trip into a big furniture trip or at least encourage them to be looser with their money. People may start their shopping trip with a goal to spend money, not necessarily to get specific products. As the shopping continues, a $150 target may become $400 as the positive vibes of a gluttonous free feast carry over into a willingness to spend money.

Final Thoughts
In the end what's so fascinating is that customers may be completely aware of how Ikea's deal will manipulate them. But they may be fine with it anyway.

Ikea has taken shopping from something that usually causes a pain of paying and turned it into an event with a feast. Ikea profits because it makes us smile even when that credit card slides. One way to view this is that Ikea is an evil corporation trying to trick us. Another way to view this is that Ikea has made the chore of shopping fun. Luckily for Ikea, their customers prefer this latter view.

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