What Is the Gruen Transfer?

Mary McMahon

The Gruen Transfer is an interesting psychological phenomenon which strikes people in certain environments, making them more susceptible to making impulse buys or purchases which they might regret later. The classic signs that someone is experiencing this phenomenon are a dropped jaw, slightly glazed eyes, and a hazy, confused feeling; many people also begin to walk more slowly as this peculiar mental state sets in. Some psychologists have described the Gruen Transfer as an almost paralytic state, where the mind ceases to function because it is experiencing too much input.

Modern malls try to trigger the Gruen Transfer.
Modern malls try to trigger the Gruen Transfer.

This concept is named for Victor Gruen, an architect who designed one of the earliest shopping malls. In fact, Gruen himself disliked the level of manipulation necessary to create this mental state, and tried to create a shopping mall which did not confuse consumers into buying things they didn't need. However, as others copied his shopping mall concept, he noted that they apparently had fewer scruples, and he decried design decisions which promoted this mental state, earning the dubious privilege of having it named after him as a result.

Various factors contribute to the Gruen Transfer, including lighting, sound, and store arrangements.
Various factors contribute to the Gruen Transfer, including lighting, sound, and store arrangements.

A number of factors come together to create the Gruen Transfer, with almost all of the senses being stimulated in a classic reaction. The use of specific lighting and sound cues plays a role, as do ambient noise and the spatial arrangements of stores and displays. Even the temperature and humidity can interact with the Gruen Transfer, as can things like mirrors and windows.

Modern mall and store designers are well aware of the phenomenon, and they deliberately create spaces which are designed to trigger this mental state, as many visitors to malls have noticed. Many malls are deliberately very difficult to navigate, with exits and routes obfuscated so that consumers often wind up back in a store when they mean to be leaving. Individual stores also have layouts which promote longer stays, and arrange enticing items very deliberately so that people are urged to pick them up on impulse.

Gruen himself felt that manipulating consumers was rather sneaky and perhaps a bit rude, but the Gruen Transfer today is an important part of advertising and industrial architecture. Numerous firms have studied the phenomenon extensively with the goal of learning more about how to tap into it, and the next time you happen to be in a shopping center, you may be able to observe a few examples yourself.

It can be hard to avoid the Gruen Transfer, since malls are deliberately designed to trigger it. Coming with a clear list of ideas about what you want can help, as can firm ideas about budget and what you don't want. If you find yourself picking up an item that isn't on your list, or struggling to make a purchase decision, you may want to step away and take a break to clear your head.

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Discussion Comments


The overwhelming feeling of depersonalization has stopped me from shopping in malls. I do all my shopping now from local stores in areas like Puckle, St Moonee Ponds.

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