Of course, bar owners aren't unique in playing on consumer psychology to boost spending. The restaurant industry employs a host of menu tactics, Aaron Allen, an independent restaurant consultant, told CNBC. That includes color choice (red, used sparingly, can draw attention to specific items), descriptions (the longer, the better in many cases) and price display (eliminating the $ sign and "nesting" the price within a description can both boost sales), he said.
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"Techniques [can] encourage you to look at the right items," he said—essentially, whatever high-profit or slow-selling items the business wants to promote.
Menus are getting more complex, and interesting, to sway imbibers away from their usual poison. The Dead Rabbit in New York City has a menu that doubles as a graphic novel, almost a choose-your-own adventure for customers willing to explore. "Look at your favorite adjective that describes how you like to drink, and flip to the page that describes that," said the bar's Pamela Wiznitzer.
Another increasingly popular tactic that works: retail theater. You'll know it when you see it—it's the drink that gets set on fire, or comes out of a slushie machine.
Citizen in Boston does a "Pappy Meal," incorporating a 2-ounce pour of the sought-after Pappy Van Winkle, along with house-made pickles, house-made jerky and (naturally) a toy, the bar's Sean Frederick told seminar attendees. "It has been easily, in four years, the buzziest thing we've ever done," he said. They sell only six a week, and sell out within an hour or two.
When the drink was introduced in April, the price ranged from $30 to $90, depending on the whiskey.
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Retail theater isn't always flashy, said Allen. In his bartending days, Allen's father would send a server out to just walk across the dining room with a tray of brightly colored tropical drinks. "It generates that, 'Ooh, what's the blue one, what's the pink one?" he said. Seeing a bartender crush ice or shake a drink can also catch customers' attention—and spur more orders.