How does a fast food menu trick you into paying more?

Why design influences you to buy the more expensive option.


A surge of greasy street-food restaurants have opened in London over the last few years, turning the locals into salivating carnivores, happy to form lengthy queues and pay hefty sums for fast food in plastic baskets. So when US-based burger merchants, Five Guys, entered the UK arena they only fanned the delicious meat-licked flames of hype.

A combination of laziness and indulgence led me into their Covent Garden restaurant one evening. The popularity of the gourmet burger has totally altered my perception of acceptability when it comes to paying for fried goods, so it wasn’t until I sat in my post-burger haze of guilty contention that I noticed something interesting about the design of their menu. On closer inspection I realised I had been subconsciously led down a path.

Most fast food restaurants offer you a standard meal size and try to up-sell you on “going large”. The cost of the upgrade is usually fairly small and balanced that so the customer feels they’re getting a bargain price for more food. In this case the restaurant has still made a slightly larger profit. The other common model is to offer a standard size but to double the price for a ‘large’ version, such as upgrading from a quarter pounder to a half pounder. This model earns the restaurant the greatest amount of money but relies on the customer to jump a small moral hurdle and commit to more food for more money.

Five Guys turns this on its head.

Their entry level burger is still called a ‘hamburger’ but you’re actually paying for a double burger. Instead of offering an upgrade they offer the customer a downgrade. A ‘regular’ size hamburger is actually called a “Little Burger”.

Why is this so clever?

Persuading someone to commit to more food is difficult because you’re not only asking them to pay more but you also risk making them feel guilty for the small act of gluttony.

Even though Five Guys offer exactly the same two options as most other burger restaurants (a large and a small version) their menu design takes away the stigma in ordering the expensive version and instead lays it on the cheaper version, earning them the greatest amount of money by default.

Sure you can always choose to buy the smaller version but who wants to buy less once committed to indulging in fast food? The word ‘little’ conjures up images of an insubstantial or unfulfilling portion size. You’re almost made to feel embarrassed for choosing the cheaper option because you’re being told it’s ‘little’, not ‘regular’, or even ‘small’.

“I’ll take the Little Burger please,” said the hungry man. The emasculating laughs from the bolder, braver, burger-eating crowd still haunt him to this day. Nobody wants to be that guy.

Well played, Five Guys. Well Played.

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking

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