8 Ways Restaurant Menus Trick You Into Spending More

If you fall for any of these stealthy tactics, your budget will suffer for it. So, here's what to watch out for when eating out.

8 Ways Restaurant Menus Trick You Into Spending More Photo by Nicoleta Ionescu / Shutterstock.com

When you open a menu, you’re looking at a marketing tool that’s designed to steer you toward choices that increase profits for the restaurant you’re visiting.

Like all businesses, restaurants exist to make money. The goal of menu design is to draw attention to the items they are most eager to sell. Typically, these are the most costly choices.

So, knowing the techniques of menu design will make you a wiser consumer — and likely save you some money the next time you dine out.

What follows are eight ways menus can influence your choices.

1. Creating food descriptions that make your mouth water

One technique that restaurants use to boost sales is making entrees sound too yummy to pass up, regardless of their cost, says Alison Pearlman, author of the recent book “May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion.”

For example, instead of simply listing “steaks,” they may describe cuts of meat as tender and juicy. Instead of simply offering “fried chicken,” menus often describe it as crispy and delicious.

“If you just had a dish without the description, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective,” Pearlman tells Money Talks News. “Sales will go up about 27 percent when you add descriptive copy to the items.”

2. Using images that build expectations

Some restaurants use tempting images along with evocative descriptions to engage diners. Color photographs of appealing dishes can draw you to featured items.

To meet guest expectations, kitchen staffs create meals that closely match the promise offered by the photographs, says Pearlman.

3. Using price decoys

Consumers are often averse to choosing the most expensive items on menus. So, some restaurants place very expensive entrees next to slightly less expensive dishes to make them look cheap by comparison, says Gregg Rapp, a professional menu engineer based in Studio City, California.

For example, seeing another entree listed for $40 makes a $30 entree seem more reasonable.

The costlier items often are referred to as decoys.

“If you have a higher-priced item, it will direct them to the lower-priced item, if they are shopping for price,” Rapp says of restaurant patrons.

4. Listing prices without dollar signs

Another psychological trick that restaurants often employ is leaving dollar signs off menu prices.

A 2009 study by Cornell University found that guests who viewed numeral-only menus spent a great deal more than guests who viewed menus with prices that included dollar signs.

Rapp tells Money Talks News that omitting dollar signs “softens the pricing.”

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