As a budget-conscious Krazy Coupon Lady, you probably have an arsenal of strategies to help offset the high cost of dining out. But even when loaded with coupons/Groupons or other discounts, many restaurants are still tricking you into spending more than you intended by using “menu engineering.”

Some savvy restaurants use “sneaky” tricks and tactics based on consumer psychology to get customers to spend more. So the next time you go out to eat, watch for the following menu tricks:

 

Clever placement

Restaurants typically place the most expensive/highest profit margin items in the upper right hand corner of the menu because that is where the eye is typically drawn first. On menus that group dishes by category (i.e, chicken, seafood, pasta), restaurants tend to put the most expensive/highest profit items first in the list for each category because diners are most likely to choose the first item on the list.

Visual tricks

Sometimes restaurants will put a box around the expensive, high-profit item that they want diners to purchase. Similar visual tricks that entice diners to buy a specific item include using a special font (in bold or in a different color), adding extra white space around a menu item, or including a picture to highlight something on the menu. Likewise, restaurants often use a little graphic (i.e, a diamond or star) next to specific menu items to indicate that the items are new or restaurant specialties.

No dollar signs

Since dollar signs remind people of money, many restaurants will drop the dollar sign or the word “dollar” from their menu. In fact, a study performed by researchers from Cornell University and the Culinary Institute of America found that eliminating references to the dollar on the menu reduced the “pain of paying” in the diner’s mind and made the diner more likely to spend more money at the restaurant. Specifically, the study found that diners spent significantly more money when the menu price was listed in numerals without dollars signs (“14”) than when it included the dollar symbol or the word “dollar” in the price (“$14” or “Fourteen dollars”). To de-emphasize the money aspect of a dish, many restaurants will also eliminate decimal points from the price (use “12” instead of “12.50”) and list a price at least two font sizes smaller than the the menu item itself.

Descriptive, “enhanced” language 

Restaurants use descriptive, “enhanced” language to make their menu items seem special and thus justify higher prices. What seems more worthy of a $9 price tag: “Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon” or “Four Cheese Truffle Mac n’ Cheese with Applewood Smoked Bacon?” By the same token, diners are more likely to pay more for menu items that evoke a sense of nostalgia and seem like a passed-down secret family recipe (for example: “Granny Mae’s Famous Coca-Cola Smoked Brisket”).

Decoys and anchoring

Some menus will purposely place a lower-priced, plain-sounding menu item next to a higher-priced, more descriptive menu item. By setting the menu up in this manner, the restaurant hopes that the more descriptive (and expensive) menu item will be more enticing to the diner than the simpler (and cheaper) option. For example, California Pizza Kitchen’s menu places its simpler and cheaper “White Pizza” right next to its fully-loaded and more expensive “Greek Pizza,” hoping that its diners will spring for the pricier option. As for “sneaky” anchoring, some restaurants will purposely place an expensive item (a $40 steak) right next to another expensive item or two (an $80 jar of caviar and a $70 double lobster tail dinner) so that the $40 item doesn’t seem so expensive by comparison. The hope is that the diner will order that $40 item because it isn’t the most expensive thing on the menu.1

Serving size conundrum

I'm sure you have come across a menu that offers one item in two different sizes. For example, a menu might have a small chicken Caesar salad for $8 and a large Caesar salad for $12. Typically, diners won't get their money’s worth of additional ingredients on the large salad. Both salads might have the same amount of chicken and the large salad just has more lettuce. Or, it could be the other way around: The large salad could have twice as much chicken as the small salad, making it the much better deal. The bottom line: Make sure to ask your server about  the specific differences between the serving sizes before making a selection.

 

Six Sneaky Ways Restaurant Menus Trick You into Spending More