If you find yourself saddled with bags full of stuff you didn't
mean to buy when shopping, it helps to look at why you overspent.
You may be succumbing to merchandising tricks carefully designed to
coax you into spending more than you intended. And as we gear up
for holiday shopping, it helps to be savvy to these subtle
"When you walk into a retail store, there are a million ways
that a store is trying to influence you," says Keith Coulter, a
professor of marketing at Clark University.
From the colorful displays to the holiday music playing in the
background, a lot of research has gone on behind the scenes to
nudge you into buying products that aren't on your list.
"There's a lot of thought given to how people make a decision,"
says Paul Kuzma, head of innovation at Tris3ct, a retail specialist
agency in Chicago. The smartest retailers know the environment you
shop in -- and the products you encounter -- can subtly influence
the choices you make.
If you're trying to rein in your spending or keep on budget,
experts recommend you watch for telltale signs of retailers'
alluring tricks. Here are some of the most common:
1. They tempt you with jumbo-size shopping carts.
"One thing most stores will do is they'll encourage the use of the
shopping cart," says Ross Steinman, a professor of psychology at
Widener University. "The larger the cart, probably the better."
"People tend to stop when their cart is full," says Steinman.
"So if it's a smaller cart, it fills up quicker. If it's a larger
cart, it's going to take longer to fill up and there's more
opportunity for purchases."
Skip the cart altogether, says money-saving expert Andrea Woroch.
"Just use a handbasket" instead, she says. "I do that all the time.
It limits how much I can put in there."
2. They seduce your senses.
"It's not a coincidence that most supermarkets, when you first walk
in, you're walking through the floral department," says Steinman.
"They look nice. They smell nice. It's a transition zone."
Many stores also use additional sensory cues, such as soft
lighting, music and scent to influence how you feel when you're
walking through the aisles. For example, "lavender is a popular
scent," says Steinman. "It's shown to be relaxing and
Similarly, the smell of leather is thought to encourage you to
buy pricey furniture, according to the
Scent Marketing Institute
, while the smell of citrus is thought to increase sales and
encourage you to linger in an aisle.
Take note of the extra sensory cues that are influencing how you
feel about a particular item, says Philip Graves, author of the
book "Consumer.ology." That way, you're less likely to be
influenced by them. "We're contextual creatures," says Graves. If
it smells particularly good inside the store, for example, you may
look at the product in a rosier light than you otherwise would, he
says. However, "if you take a moment to smell what the environment
is like, when you look at the product, you'll look at the product
3. They engineer which products you see first.
When you scan a cereal aisle, you may have noticed the priciest
cereals are at eye level while the bargain bags are at the bottom.
That's a tactic many stores use, say experts.
"The eye-level space is more expensive," says Steinman. If
you're more interested in the bargain goods, you'll have to crane
or bend over to seek those items out.
Some stores will also stack items of varying prices together in
order to make a middle-priced item look more attractive, says
Michael McCall, a professor of marketing at Ithaca College. For
example, a store may display three different wines, including a $40
bottle and a $12 bottle. "If I'm a really smart retailer, then I'm
going to put a $27 bottle in the middle," says McCall. "Suddenly
that one doesn't look bad."
Don't just grab the first item you see displayed, says Woroch. Take
the time to compare different items in the same category so you
know which one is a better deal.
4. They invite you to daydream.
Another tactic retailers sometimes use to increase sales is to
periodically change the store layout, says Steinman. That way,
you're more likely to bump into something new.
Retailers also frequently pair complementary items together on
separate displays in order to trigger new ideas, he says.
"Consumers really like stories," says Steinman. So one way to
satisfy that is to pair products that tell a story about what you
can do with them. For example, if you see cupcakes paired with
frosting and disposable plates on a grocery stor end cap, you may
think, "Hey, if I make these cupcakes, my kids are going to love
it. It's going to be a great experience together and that's worth
more than the price of the object," says Steinman. "That
storytelling leads to additional purchases people may not have
Department stores also frequently place cues throughout a store
suggesting how much fun you'll have when make a purchase. For
example, when you buy an iPhone or iPad, the store will lead you to
believe "you're not just buying a device. You're buying something
that will enable you to share memories with your loved ones," says
"It's always better to go in with a list," he says. That way,
you're less likely to be tempted by impulse purchases.
5. They lure you with bargains.
Many retailers heavily discount items just to get you in the store,
says Woroch. "They know they can capture more sales once you walk
through those doors," she says, so they don't mind losing money on
Retailers may also try to push you toward a more expensive item
once you're there, says McCall, so be prepared. "The idea is they
bring you in on a sale price and then seek to trade you up," he
Another common tactic is to offer 2-for-1 or 10-for-$10 deals,
says Woroch, because "we automatically feel there is a better value
when multiple products are involved."
In addition, retailers will bundle items together to make it
appear as if you're getting a good deal. "But they often don't
discount them much at all," says Graves. "People will just buy the
pack of 24 rather than the individual one because they assume that
it's cheaper and they don't have time to stop and check every
Do the math. "It's important to understand how the offer is
applied," says Woroch. "Often those multiple deals are suggestive.
They want you to buy 10." But you don't necessarily have to in
order to get the deal. Similarly, be wary of bulk purchases.
"Sometimes it's actually cheaper to buy the individual item than in
the bulk," says Graves.
6. They fiddle with prices.
Research shows that small changes in the way a price is displayed
can make a significant difference in how it is perceived. For
example, Clark University Professor Keith Coulter found that if two
horizontal numbers are placed far apart, the discount between the
items seems greater than if they're placed closer together.
Similarly, if a sales price is displayed in smaller font than an
item's regular price, Coulter found that the sales price seems more
affordable than if it was displayed in larger font. "The economic
value hasn't changed. All you've done is manipulated these
perceptual cues," says Coulter.
Price displays are often tinkered with in order to boost sales.
For example, a common strategy is to use .99 at the end of a price
in order to make it seem cheaper than it actually is. "Using ,99
endings has been around for 100 years," says Coulter. "The idea is
that consumers process numbers from left to right. If they see a
number like $15.99, they're going to process that as 15 rather than
Another trick retailers and manufacturers use is to mention an
earlier, much higher price in order to make the current price seem
like a bargain, says Graves. For example, a retailer might say,
"Was $25, Now $11."
"We as consumers are very susceptible to that because we
interpret the $11 in reference to the $25 rather than what we
should do, which is appraise the value of the product," he
Evaluate a potential purchase based on how much you think it's
worth (try using a price comparison smartphone app, such as
Price Check App
), rather than on how much a retailer tells you it used to be
7. They fake popularity.
Retailers may promote a product as being in high demand by
commenting on how many have been sold or warning you that it's
almost sold out, says McCall.
In addition, they will try to increase sales by limiting the
number available, he says. "If you limit access or opportunities,
then the perceived value goes up dramatically," says McCall. "It's
all predicated on the notion that if I don't get it now, it's gone
"When something doesn't feel right in the pit of your stomach,
listen," says McCall. "Just because everybody else has bought it,
doesn't mean you should."
Look before you buy. The next time you enter a store, take a moment
to notice your environment and scan the store for different ways it
could be tempting you into purchases you didn't plan to make. "That
makes it less likely that you'll be influenced unconsciously by
those things when you're making purchases," says Graves.
It's also a good idea to create a list and a budget ahead of
time, he says. "The most powerful thing a shopper can do is to go
with a predetermined sense of what they're going to buy and a
budget." If you occasionally slip, don't worry. "The reality is
that we're more impulsive creatures than that," says Graves. "We do
tend to enjoy going into these types of environments and being
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