How Menus Trick You Into Spending More

  • By Quentin Fottrell, Marketwatch
  • September 17, 2014

eating out

The next time you’re perusing a menu, treat it with the same caution you would a pot of last month’s stew. That’s because higher priced and unhealthy items are strategically presented to look the most appetizing.

Two recent and separate analyses of restaurant menus came up with strikingly similar conclusions: Restaurants are trying to guide your eye to certain items, even when cheaper or healthier options are flagged. Menu names with descriptive items sell better and lead you to believe that they taste better, according to a new study of 217 menus and selections of over 300 diners by researchers at Cornell University and published this month in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

The researchers cite a case where the names of restaurant menu items were changed to make them more exotic: The seafood filet, for example, became “succulent Italian seafood filet,” and red beans and rice became “Cajun red beans and rice.”

Sales of these renamed items with descriptions rose by 28 percent and were rated as tastier, even though the recipes before and after were identical. What’s more, diners were also willing to spend an average of 12 percent more for a menu item with a fancy name.

Any food item that attracts attention with bold, highlighted or a colored font, an item that’s set apart in its own special box on the menu, or anything listed as a “house favorite,” is more likely to be ordered than an item listed next to it, the study found. The reason consumers should be concerned? “In most cases, these are the least healthy items on the menu,” says the study’s co-author Brian Wansink and author of “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.”

Similar to the way supermarkets put the higher margin foods at eye level, menus place higher priced items where consumers will most likely see them. On a menu, this is often on the top-right or bottom-left. Menu items are also given exotic descriptions to make them seem worth their weight in fillet steak, says Gina Mohr, assistant professor of marketing at Colorado State University — Fort Collins. And although images of food on a menu may be too down market for some restaurants, those tantalizing photos often work.

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Tagged in: Spending, MarketWatch