When was the last time you questioned your retail sale message or even your sale mechanic?

As the ‘Golden quarter’ comes around for retailers, we inevitably start working with our clients to shape and communicate their biggest retail sale message of the year. It’s familiar territory, and in most cases starts with a review of what we did last year (and the years before).

For most retailers out there, there’s a ‘creative refresh’ with a new theme, colours and headlines, but it’s rare for a retailer to spend a lot of effort interrogating their retail sale message or mechanic – the way the discount is introduced. “It’s always been our 50% sale and it always works. Why change it?”.

If you hadn’t already noticed, here at The Behaviours Agency we’re pretty keen on using behavioural science to boost marketing performance. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that we’ve analysed the behaviour behind why certain retail sale messages work, and some techniques you can try that could boost your sale’s performance.

Here are some of the interesting ones – why not get in touch and we can send you the full analysis?

Headline Figure

A single attention grabbing discount, shown as a percentage (‘50% off’) or fractions (e.g. ‘ Half off’)

Simple to understand. Transparent for customers to work out what they’ll pay.

Easy for competitors to beat. Relies on the discount being persuasive enough on its own.

Behavioural biases
Framing a price to include a big discount influences our perception of value, and we make a more emotional, rather than rational decision to buy.

Percentage Plus

Big attention grabbing figure, with an additional offer.

Appears simple to understand, but actually causes customers to over-estimate the discount amount.

Can be confusing, making it difficult for customers to work out the price. Potential cynicism towards a company using confusing tactics.

Behavioural biases
This is a more extreme version of framing, as seen in ‘Headline Figure’ sales, but also plays on people’s dislike of actually having to do the work of calculating the discount (limiting our ‘cognitive load’), so we overestimate how much of a discount we’re getting.

Retail sale messaging

Finance Offers

Using finance products to make purchases more enticing.

Lets customers buy today.

Cost of operation.

Behavioural biases

  1. Finance allows companies to exploit x3 biases:
    ‘Buy now pay later’ uses hyperbolic discounting, where people prioritise today’s pleasure over today’s pain.
  2. ‘£XX per month’ is an example of chunking, making the big goal (paying the full amount) more palatable by breaking it into smaller, more manageable chunks.
  3. Finally, mental accounting is the theory that we don’t treat all our money in the same way, and often treat money from different ‘pots’ in different ways. An £XX per month price can be mentally allocated to our monthly outgoings (and is therefore easy to excuse), rather than being a big one off payment.


Added to a promotion, a deadline makes customers more likely to act quickly.

Tried and tested, simple to understand.

For brands who are frequently on sale, it’s difficult to legitimately keep claiming deadlines.

Behavioural biases

  1. Scarcity – we attach a greater value to something we believe to be scarce.
  2. Loss aversion – we fear the pain of loss, and don’t want to miss out on the offer.

Sale with a Story

A less common tactic, sometimes a promotion is given a story that makes it more compelling than simply offering the amount straight. In this Ford example, recalling the famous government backed Car Scrappage Scheme, rather than just offering £2000 off.

Black Friday is a great example of a Sale with a Story – especially in the UK. There’s a collective belief that the very best offers are available on Black Friday, and this blinds consumers to less impressive discounts and older or lower quality products.

Has been shown to be more compelling than a simple discount amount, provided you get the story right. If a consumer believes the story it mitigates whether or not they believe the brand.

If you get the story wrong, it can make a compelling offer more complicated.

Behavioural baises
Storytelling appeals to the emotional (system 1) side of our brain, rather than the rational side. Despite what we might think, the emotional side plays the bigger part in purchasing decisions.

Sale with a story

What do I do with this?

Consider these principles when deciding how to structure your next retail sale message:

  • You don’t need to go all in straight away. Social media gives you a simple way to test potential sale mechanics before committing and sending your POS to print! Try an A/B test, where half the users see your existing mechanic and half see an alternative way of showcasing the same discount.
  • Look at what your competitors are doing.
  • If everyone in your sector offers a straight %age discount, it doesn’t mean you need to follow. Consider deliberately using a different sale mechanic, even if it offers a smaller saving. For example, if your nearest rival offers 25% off, you don’t necessarily need to go for 30% to beat them. How about ‘20% plus an additional 10%’ (total, 28% saving)?
  • Whilst sales data is the ultimate way to see whether sales tactics are working, don’t forget to research consumer’s attitudes as well. Suddenly changing sales tactics can have an impact on brand perceptions, and this needs to be understood and managed.
  • Don’t stand still. Just because something worked once, it doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it forever. Consumers are changing at an ever increasing rate, and your competitors don’t stand still either.

If we’ve piqued your interest in applying behavioural science to your retail sale messages or sale mechanics, then why not get in touch with James Kay or myself or call 0161 872 7813.

By James Ballinger

Senior Account Director