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Mind games on the menu when you're dining out

It's all too much to do: you're sitting down at your restaurant table at the same time as trying to regale someone with a witty anecdote about the crashing price of oilseed rape, and before you know it you've ordered starters, main course and wine.

You think little of it, until the time comes to pay and the bill is equivalent to the GDP of an oligarch-free former Soviet republic. So why is it so easy to overspend in restaurants?

According to William Poundstone, the American author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), published this week, one of the main factors leading us to buy certain food items is the way they are presented to us -- on the menu, for example.

Menus, he says, employ a litany of psychological tricks to ensnare the unwary diner. With a combination of pictures, bold fonts and careful positioning of items, the savvy restaurant owner will have you parting with your cash quicker than you can say: "Hey! It's still 10 days until pay-day."

In his analysis, he reveals various terms used in such dupe-ology, including "puzzles, anchors, stars and plowhorses".

"A 'star' is a popular, high-profit item. In other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make," Poundstone explains. "A 'puzzle' is high-profit, but unpopular. A 'plowhorse' is the opposite -- popular yet unprofitable. Consultants employed to assemble many of the most high-profile restaurants' menus try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look."

He goes on to explain why Starbucks gives its coffees mystifying names, such as tall, grande and venti. "Psychological studies have shown that when consumers are given a choice like this, and when they don't have a compelling reason to pick one over the other, they pick the middle option," he says. "Starbucks has considerable power to nudge customers into ordering however big a coffee they'd like to sell, just by making it the middle size. You'll see a lot of three-way choices elsewhere, with pizzas and soft drinks."

With a restaurant meal being among the most glaring examples of consumers being encouraged to part with their hard-earned cash, what are the menu 'tricks' used to lure in the unwary diner? Poundstone explains how to tell your genuine bargain from your pocket-burners.

Upper right-hand corner

"The first thing people do when they open the menu is look at its upper right-hand corner," Poundstone explains. "Experts I consulted reckon the geography of the menu is very important when people decide what they will have."

Eateries place in the menu's top right-hand corner an item which is highly profitable and has great tone-setting significance.

This 'anchor' is often an expensive item, such as a plate of seafood. "They don't care whether they sell a lot of it because it's so costly," continues the author. "If you're going to blow a lot of money on it, it will be the chef's lucky day."

The item is, in fact, mainly there to elevate in people's minds the price of what it is reasonable to pay across the rest of the menu -- if you subsequently spot a €30 steak it won't seem so extravagantly priced. "If you start putting high numbers out, then people raise their estimations of what's reasonable," says Poundstone. When we're making split-second decisions, he says, the effects of 'anchoring' are heightened.


"The whole idea of 'prix fixe', or the 'combo' meals that you might get in fast-food restaurants, is that for a given price it is harder to compare what you're getting," he explains. "If it's €30 for two scallops, it's easy for you to work out that you're being cheated. But if they say €30 for two scallops and vegetables and something else, it's hard to work out how much for each thing."

The benefit of boxes

Boxes are a simple way of getting people's attention. Restaurants box off things that are high-profit. The opposite of that is 'menu Siberia', which are the items which are not high-profit but which restaurant owners do not want to take off the menu in case their regular customers go somewhere else to get them. They might have text explaining them. "Fewer people will order them, but if they want to find them they will."

The price comparison cheat

"You don't want to list all of your items in a straight column running down the page because it's really easy for the customer to see what the cheapest thing is and then order that," says the author. He also says dots leading from the item to the price are avoided because it helps with comparison between items on the menu.

"All of this sounds quite silly when you first hear it," he adds. "But 99pc of the decisions we make in our lives are not all that important. When you're ordering you're probably paying attention to the conversation you're having and you're not really paying attention to what you're ordering. So these subtle changes can make a big difference to an owner's profit margins. All of this is based on a series of psychological experiments involving people looking at a screen and making choices with different menu systems. Economists have done research into who makes what choices, and it's been picked up by people who are looking to earn a quick buck."

The right-next-door

The anchor often has a slightly cheaper, yet still expensive, item placed next to it. Comparatively, the second item now seems like a bargain.

Meal for two

"These are some of the most expensive things on the menu," says Poundstone. "A lot of people figure this is a good deal. That's not always the case. You have to divide by two to compare, and if you're in a restaurant trying to make witty conversation you probably aren't going to bother to do that. It's a smokescreen, but enough to make you not pay attention to what you are paying."

Offering a choice of portion size

"You're offered the same dish in different sizes, and it's a can't-win proposition," he says.

"People often opt for the cheaper option to save money, but often that size is half of a proper portion. But, if you think it's not enough food, you can't complain because you went for it. It often encourages people to upgrade their portion and pay double the money. It's a kind of 'heads I win, tails you lose' scenario," concludes Poundstone.