How a Restaurant’s Menu Can Trick You Into Spending More

Have you ever noticed the way in which expensive, five star restaurants layout the items on their menu? How they display details about a particular entree or appetizer and then display the price directly below the description rather than to the right of it?

I never thought much about it before, but an interesting article by Francis Lam brought my attention to the intimate connection between menu layouts and money. Throughout the article, Lam explains how a well designed menu can manipulate patrons into spending more money then they intend. It seems a few simple text and formatting changes can quickly focus a patron’s attention away from money and onto food.

Here are a few menu layout techniques that restaurant owners might employ in an effort to get you to spend more money:

  • Round to the nearest dollar and skip the cents, avoiding more numerals that can draw attention to the cost.
  • Don’t align prices on the page. It’s more difficult to compare prices when they aren’t lined up.
  • Never draw lines or dotted lines from the entrees name or description to the price.
  • Place expensive items in the upper right side of a menu first, because patrons will look there first when opening the page.

According to Lam, restaurant owners may also draw boxes around specific entrees, to attract the diner’s attention. The items inside that box may make the restaurant the most money or they may be so expensive that they’ll make other items on the menu seem more reasonable. If you see a $150 hamburger on the menu, you’ll think a $50 steak listed further down the menu isn’t so bad.

According to Lam, “our sense of value is always relative, and a technique like this, which gets you over your sticker shock early, can skew the sense just enough for you to find yourself saying, ‘I’ll have the steak medium rare, please.'”

So is it wrong for restaurants to manipulate your food selections? Well the author doesn’t think so. He notes that restaurants are businesses and as such are in the business of making money. He also notes that “there is an important distinction between saying that these menus are hiding their prices and saying that they are helping you to focus on the food when making your choices.”

Lastly the author suggests that one shouldn’t focus too much on money before and after choosing from the menu. He writes, “what meal tastes better when you’re busy calculating how much each bite is costing you? Of course people have their budgets to follow, and ones with tight budgets are likely going to be extra vigilant of how much they’re spending regardless of subtle design tricks. But once they’ve committed their money, shouldn’t they also get the most out of it by enjoying the night without worry?”

I think people should think about money long before they step into the restaurant rather than when they are seated at the table. If you can afford to eat a pricey meal than you’ll know that long before you step into the restaurant. Once presented with the menu I’ve found that prices typically differ within a very small range, with the exception being market priced items or other high priced specials. So the question might not be whether you should eat steak or crab cakes, but rather if you should eat at a fancy restaurant or McDonald’s or simply make a meal at home.

Either way I must admit that I’ve never thought much about the way a menu’s layout could manipulate one’s dining decisions, but you bet the next time I go out to eat I’ll pay closer attention to the menu.

1 thought on “How a Restaurant’s Menu Can Trick You Into Spending More”

  1. I must admit that like yourself I had never given this any thought.I had gotten to grips with what goes on inside a Supermarket, but never a Restaurant, this gives me food for thought. ( pun intended )


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