5 January 2015

Applied Behavioural Science the Istanbul Way

At the end of 2014, my beloved wife and I spent six days in Istanbul. Apart from the traditional touristic attractions, which are truly astonishing, I was amazed by the high level of applied behavioural science techniques used by businesses, at least in the touristic area of the city.

Most likely the people who use these techniques have not studied behavioural science. I seriously doubt that many of them even finished high school. Yet, when it comes to deploying sales and marketing techniques rooted in behavioural science, the merchants in Istanbul are better than many people who have studied this beautiful branch of science at Master or PhD level.

Personally, I realized that I could have learned most of what I know by working six months in Istanbul: 2 months in a restaurant, 2 months in a shop and 2 months at the Grand Bazar.

Here are some examples I encountered:

1. Establishing liking and similarity and the use of the Representativeness Heuristic.

Many merchants, including street vendors and restaurants, use the representativeness heuristic in order to choose the language in which they approach people on the street. In my case, I heard lots of people approaching me in Russian. Yes, I do quite look like a prototypical Russian, but I am not.

In addition, a lot of the people whose job is to bring clients from the street, approach passers-by with “My friend”. 

As Cornelia (my wife) said, We never knew how many friends we have there …

Moreover, the majority of merchants speak some very, very basic level of most languages that tourists speak. Not seldom, I was greeted in Romanian and once, we even spoke in Romanian with the seller who was quite fluent.

Another way of establishing liking used by merchants in Istanbul is the universal language of football (soccer for readers who wrongly believe that football is a different game). Usually, tourists are asked by vendors where they are from. 

The moment one answers the question, the merchant replies with names of footballers from the country the tourist is from.

In the case of Romanian football players, the Turks know quite a large number of names, but this is mainly because many Romanian footballers played in Turkey. Usually I got: “Hagi, Popescu, Filipescu, Ilie” (all played at Galatasaray).

Once I said that I am from The Netherlands and the only name I got was “Dirk Kuyt” … kind of thin considering the large number of famous Dutch footballers.

2.  Making things easier and simple.

I could write a lot on how the merchants of Istanbul make it simpler for tourists to spend money, but the one thing that impressed me the most was that in many restaurants and shops had especially employed people to open the door once a passer-by stops even for one second in front of a shop or a restaurant.

3.  Choice architecture and leaving a tip twice.

In restaurants, I noticed that the staff was well versed in encouraging customers to leave a tip twice. The custom in Istanbul is to leave a tip of about 5-10%. Some restaurants include the tip in the bill. For example, if the food and drinks amount to 64 Turkish Lira (TLR) there is another 6 Lira added for service and the total is written in large fonts 70 Lira.

Since the bill is written, usually, in Turkish and most tourist customers look only at the total, sometimes they leave another 5-10 Liras as tip, even if the service was included in the initial bill.

What I found fascinating was that at one restaurant which included the service in the bill, the change came in a particularly interesting denomination. For example, if the bill was 64 Lira, the total was 70 with 6 Liras for service. If the client paid with a 100 Liras banknote, the 30 Liras in change was brought as one banknote of 20 Liras, one banknote of 5 Liras and five coins of 1 Lira. This encourages customers to leave 2-3 Liras (in coins) as a tip, even if the service was included.

4.  Endowment effect

Quite a few times I was approached by people working at restaurants with the following phrase:

“Sir, your table is right here on the terrace”.

Now, who would want to lose their table?

5.  Physical environment influences and apparent reciprocity.

After the first night spent in the hotel, we came back from our sight-seeing and noticed that on the night stand there was an envelope with “Tip Box” written on it.

Subsequently we noticed that virtually everywhere there were tip boxes.  

Another interesting use of environmental influences was that in all restaurants and shops the temperature was quite high. It was December when we visited Istanbul, but the weather was quite OK and it is nice to eat or shop in a warm environment, but I don’t think that sweating is necessary. Nonetheless, a higher room temperature is always good for spending money.

In some restaurants and shops the customers are offered tea or a small desert (Turkish delight or baklava). This is not exactly free, but the staff gives the impression that they do it especially for you. Subsequently the likelihoods of purchasing and / or leaving a larger tip increase.

6.  Anchoring and mocked bargaining.

Yes, Bargaining is part of the touristic experience in Istanbul. And the Grand bazar is the most appropriate place to do so.

The thing is that the merchants in the Grand Bazar and, in fact everywhere in Istanbul, are more versed in sales and bargaining than all the tourists put together.

We looked at an artisanal coffee set as a gift for my parents and I asked how much it was in Euros. The merchant said:

“Normally it is 80 Euros, but now because it is winter and there aren’t many customers in the bazar it is only 50 Euros”.

The Grand Bazar was not packed with tourists, but it wasn’t empty either. We managed to get the coffee set for 46 Euros, but when we arrived home we realized that it only looked like copper … it wasn’t real copper... it was painted with a copper like paint...

7.  The honest cheater (?)

It was quite late and after a 4 hours flight, 3 hours delay and a crazy half an hour taxi ride on the streets of Istanbul, we were quite exhausted and happy that we finally arrived at the hotel.  

The gentleman at the reception was very welcoming and gave us a 5 minutes crash course on how we will be cheated by merchants, taxi drivers etc. Personally, I knew that we will be cheated, which is part of the tourist experience in Istanbul.

What I found very interesting, was that at the end of the micro-lecture the gentleman said, with the aura of a concierge, that if we want to buy anything – leather, gold, carpets etc. – we should ask him and he will recommend some honest shops…

This got me wondering about the commission system that I believe works very well in Istanbul. Although I have no proof to doubt his honesty, I had a feeling that everything he said could be reframed as:

“We don’t want others to cheat you. We will cheat you and you will have the impression that you got a good deal.”

Well, we weren’t there for shopping and we knew that we will be cheated, at least a little.

Everyone has their limits

On the last full day in Istanbul, we were approached for the zillionth time by a street vendor who was trying to sell us a tourist guide of Istanbul.

He employed the use of the representativeness heuristic: and immediately offered an Istanbul guide in Russian. (I do look like a Russian, but really I am not). I answered that we are not Russians. The vendor, immediately found the next best assumptions:

“Aaa! Ukrainians. I have in Ukrainian”
“We are not Ukrainians”, I answered

And then, the traditional: “Where are you from?” followed.

I was already annoyed enough by the quite aggressive sales techniques, of being mistaken for a Russian for the zillionth time and being asked 30 times a day “Where are you from”… So I said:


The very prompt answer was: “Hai Sictir” which I immediately understood since it is used in (old) Romanian for “Go F*ck yourself”. I guess in Turkish it has the same meaning…

All in all, Istanbul is a great place to visit. We were particularly fortunate that our friend Nejla is living there and we got some local insight. Thank you Nejla!

I wish you all a good 2015!

And visit Istanbul if you want to see Behavioural Science applied in merchant practice… 

Though, don’t bring too much money. The local merchants are very skilled in taking it from you! 

Take a look at my new website www.naumof.com      


Anonymous said...

In London I once saw a seller of the Big Issue (magazine sold by homeless people). Saying "quick, someone pretend to buy a copy so that other people start buying!". Good use of social proof!

Nicolae Naumof said...