You may consider yourself a savvy shopper, but there's actually a whole science called “retail psychology," for which the sole purpose is to get you to spend more money than you'd like.
It's probably no surprise that the goal of retailers is to make you part with your money. But you might be shocked at how they are getting you to open your wallet by targeting your subconscious.
They've got a whole host of science-backed retail sales tricks that lure you in and make you feel like you're getting a deal—even when you're not.
But here's a fun secret: Once you school yourself on their top retail tricks and tactics, you can beat them at their own game.
By exposing some of the most egregious retail psychology –inspired tactics you'll find in the mall, at the grocery store, and online, you can enjoy your shopping session knowing that you haven't spent a penny more than you planned to–and sometimes even less!
Here's how to be the smart shopper you always prided yourself to be—and the envy of your bargain-shopping friends. Turn the tricks of retailers around on them by knowing what to look for, beware of, and how to apply expert tips of your own to save you money—and face.
Become a Master of Mall Mind Games
When you walk into the mall, you feel the energy, you're attracted to the bright sales signs, and you smell the cinnamon, right? That's because a key retail trick is playing on all of your senses. They want you so immersed in the shopping experience that you don't even realize how much cash you're spending. But you will—so keep that goal of saving money in sight!
Don't worry—we'll help you see past their sensory deceptions and other retails sales tricks starting now.
They want you to forget where you are so you spend more money.
Retailers know that the more you walk around the department store, the more money you'll spend, so if you feel like you're lost in space—"What department am I in? What time is it?"—there's a reason: Spaces are designed to disorient you. Losing focus makes people spend more money on impulse purchases, said marketing researcher Martin Lindstrom, author of “Brand Sense: How to Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound," in a Time article.
That's why department stores often seem like they're set up like a maze, and why the bathroom is never, ever where you'd expect to find it.
That's also the reason you might notice there are no clocks, points out April Benson, author of “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop."
Outsmart it: Have a plan and stick to it, Benson advises. That means setting up a schedule for which stores you plan to visit, what you want to buy there, and how long you'll spend in each store—before you even leave the house.
“Set a timer on your phone, to keep you from buying yet one more thing that you know you don't really need and leave after your predetermined time is up," she advises, to keep you from buying yet one more thing that you know you don't really need.
For instance, if you're there to buy a new pair of winter boots, remind yourself not to be distracted as you meander through cosmetics to get to the right department. Repeat what you need to yourself: Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. A mantra can work wonders to stop you from spending more money on items you didn't come in for, she says.
They want you to talk to a salesperson who is all too happy to show you the perfect pair of jeans—and a scarf to go with them.
Where have they hidden that gorgeous suede sale jacket that you came for? If you really want to know, you'll have to ask. And chances are good your friendly helper knows just the perfect pencil skirt to really make it work. And there's another $100 you hadn't planned to spend.
A study by Deloitte found that people were almost 50% more likely to buy an item after they talked to a salesperson. That's why you might find one approaching you as you enter the store because they want to help you spend your hard-earned cash.
It's also why some tantalizing items are locked up. You've probably felt that cringe-worthy moment where you're forced to ask the glam sales girl to take out an eye shadow so you can just look. But she was so nice! It almost feels like you owe it to her to buy it.
Even if that salesperson is unpleasant, you still might buy! Believe it or not, snobbiness actually might make you buy more, especially if you're going for luxury products, finds one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
“Our research indicates [snobby salespeople] can end up having a similar effect to an 'in-group' in high school that others aspire to join," says Darren Dahl, marketing professor at the Sauder School of Business.
Outsmart it: Worried you're being judged for not buying? Stop caring, Benson urges. Who's paying your credit card bill, you or the salesperson? To save money, you have to picture that unpleasantly large bill in your mind so you can avoid it.
One tactic to shut it down ASAP is to adopt the new buzz phrase, “just browsing." Let the helpful salesperson know you're not planning to buy anything today up front and that can quash those feelings that you're wasting his or her time.
As for the mean salesperson? You left high school cliques in high school: Remind yourself the salesperson is in it for the commission—nothing else, Benson says. No one is trying to befriend you, and you don't need to impress anyone by spending money you know you don't really want to.
The store smells like… money leaving your wallet.
The baby department that smells like baby powder makes you want to get yet another onesie, and maybe a stuffed animal. It's no accident that it smells that way: There is an entire industry of scent marketing firms that help retailers develop “signature" scents. One firm, ScentAir, boasts: “We work with you to elevate your marketing efforts through the noninvasive but oh-so-powerful use of scent."
Powerful indeed… 75% of the emotions we generate on a daily basis are affected by smell. Next to sight, it is the most important sense we have, says Lindstrom.
In fact, astudy by smell and taste researcher Dr. Alan Hirsch found that shoppers would pay more for a pair of Nike shoes in a scented room than for an identical pair in an unscented room, reports financial expert Dave Ramsey.
Outsmart it: Merely recognizing that the tropical scent in the swimsuit store is a marketing ploy (since you're, in fact, not on a beach) is the key. Tell yourself, "it smells too good to be true."
“Remind yourself where you are," says Benson. And remember: The less you spend on a bathing suit, the more you'll have left to enjoy a fruity drink poolside.
50% off everything! (Except that. And that. And that.)
The coupon exclusion is the new department store sneak attack. The front of the coupon crows “50% off!" but on the back, there's a massive list of everything that's excluded. (Get out a magnifying glass to truly decipher this.)
Retailers have had to offer more sales and coupons than ever before to attract shoppers into their stores, points out consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. And fortunately for the stores—and unfortunately for your bank account—most shoppers don't review the terms before heading to the store and are surprised when they're already up at the register that the item you covet is going to cost way more than you had expected.
Of course, that's just one more retail sales trick: They are betting that once you've loaded up your arms those great deals for that beautiful new spring wardrobe, you're not likely to bail, being that you've already invested the time and effort to travel to the store, try on the clothes, etc.
Outsmart it: Read the fine print. It's so easy, and yet so overlooked for most shoppers. If you're thinking you want to bag that awesome designer bag for 50% off, check the exclusions before you fall in love with it at the store. Otherwise, you might end up with a new bag… and not much cash to fill it. Not such a great deal after all.
Bonus tip: Check online to see if that LBD is really on sale… whip out your phone, find the item and stick it in your cart, enter the coupon code, and see what happens, advises Woroch. If the discount applies, then feel free to try it on.
The dressing room makes you look thinner and tanner, which makes that sundress look so good you just have to buy it.
You know those fun house mirrors at the fair? Retailers have a different “fun" trick, which is to make you look as awesome as possible. In fact, BusinessInsider reported that a Swedish study of 86 lingerie shoppers revealed that people who used a dressing room with The Skinny Mirror (yes, there's such a thing) felt better about their body image and, subsequently, purchased more than they intended.
Distortion aside, the survey's results accurately reflect that sentiment: 88% of customers who used The Skinny Mirror made a purchase compared to 73% of customers who used a regular mirror.
Another devious dressing room tactic is playing with light, says Lindstrom in an article for Real Simple. For example, those “angels" at Victoria's Secret tint their mirrors just ever so slightly and add a slight tint of rosy color to make you look fresher and tanned. Who's going to turn down the chance to look that good? Ka-ching. They've got you.
“When an item of clothing makes you feel more attractive, you're more likely to buy it, so retailers go to great lengths to create a flattering reflection, which encourages you to spend," says Woroch.
Outsmart it: If you like what you see in the dressing room, head out to the main sales floor with its gasp-inducing fluorescent overhead lighting and find a mirror there to make sure it isn't an illusion.
Or, take the dress home and try it on your natural environment. Just make sure the store accepts returns for a full refund in case you decide later that you aren't happy with the fit, Woroch advises.
A Different Kind of Online Predator
You might decide to turn to online shopping to stay away from all those impulse-buying landmines, but web stores have their own retail tricks—starting with that “convenient" one-click shopping button. How nice of them to store your credit card info, right? Wrong. In fact, let's start there.
We're looking at you, Amazon Prime, and other retailers that store your credit card info. It's way too simple to be sucked in and purchase those metallic jeans or yoga pants, just because you see them. With one click, they're on their way to your house, and your money is on its way to the store.
That simplicity could explain why Amazon Prime members spend 2.3 times more money per year than other customers, finds a survey by investment firm RBC Capital. The fewer barriers there are to buying, the easier it is to purchase without really thinking through whether you need the item, Benson says.
Outsmart it: If you must put something in your cart, go ahead, but wait at least 24 hours to give it another gander before buying it, suggests Benson. When you're not in the moment, you may realize those earrings aren't really all that great. And if you decide they will definitely up your basic black suit's game, you might even have scored another discount.
"If you play your cards right, you should receive a follow-up email with a coupon to entice you back to the cart and close the deal," Mark Ellwood, retail expert and author of "Bargain Fever,"tells Business Insider. That is, if you still want them.
Also, resist the urge to store your credit card and shipping information. You want to add speed bumps to the purchase, not make it easier. This Lifehacker article even goes so far as to recommend that you get a new card if you have memorized the number on the old one. And, no buying something just for the air miles doesn't count.
Incessant emails from your favorite store announcing a huge sale. That's it! Savings like that, you can't afford not to spend!
Is your email box clogged with sale announcements? Some retailers literally send emails every single day, requiring a lot of willpower on your part because the merchandise looks so tantalizing and like such a great deal. Another common retail trick is to add urgency with "limited-time only" deals or "one-day" sales, Woroch notes, which make you want to spend, rather than save.
Another retail sales trick is to suck you in with a special perk, like an additional discount, or gift with purchase, which can inspire a purchase you otherwise wouldn't make, and can even make you feel more positive toward the retailer in general, says Dan Ariely, in his book, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions."
Once they've got you on the site, don't be surprised if yet another “sale" is announced while you're browsing. Getting interrupted by a pop-up ad may make the item you were looking at even more desirable—while making you less price sensitive, according to research co-authored by marketing professors at Stanford University and University of California, San Diego.
Outsmart it: Unsubscribe, then unsubscribe some more. Don't worry, you're not going to miss out on some hot deal.
“Sales and promotions are recurring, so consumers almost always have the opportunity to take advantage of discounts at any given time," Woroch says. You can also go to websites like Retail Me Not and CouponSherpa for coupons and deals when you need them, she adds.
If you prefer getting the emails, create a separate email address for retailers' shipping notices, and sales alerts, Benson recommends. That way, you won't be bombarded by daily enticing emails with their great deals luring you in.
Just spend $20 more, and your shipping is free!
Everyone falls for this at some point. Even Brent Shelton, spokesman for deal site FatWallet (a deal expert), admitted to MarketWatch that he catches himself looking for more items to qualify all the time.
“I tell myself, 'There's got to be something that I need,'" he says. But do you really need it? It's likely that the “extra" item may even go above what you need to qualify for free shipping—making it a total budget-busting bummer.
Outsmart it: Usually it's better to suck it up and just pay the shipping. There may be instances when it's worth it to add a pair of socks to your order to qualify for free shipping, but those scenarios are rare, Woroch points out.
Why You're Going Broke at the Grocery Store
Supermarkets can be the biggest budget-buster of them all since we make an average of 1.6 trips per week to buy groceries, according to the Food Marketing Institute. As such, there are plenty of opportunities for grocers to use their retail psychology to get us to buy, buy, buy—and watch our money go bye, bye, bye.
To find what I need I have to navigate through aisles of temptation which makes me want to buy it all!
Every square inch of a store is programmed for you to buy, says Woroch. That's why when you walk into the store, you'll likely be bombarded by the scent of fresh bread and the sight of gorgeous, colorful produce tumbling out of baskets.
“High-margin departments like floral and fresh baked goods are placed near the front door, so you encounter them when your cart is empty and your spirits are high," cautions an article on Business Insider.
And then, you're going to turn right. "Retail shopping studies have found that most people turn right when they enter a store. That's because the majority of the population is right-handed and right-oriented," says Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," in a story on consumer finance site Bankrate.
But, wait, you just ran in for milk. Of course, that's at the back of the store, forcing you to pass all sorts of awesome diversions along the way.
Outsmart it: Just like you wouldn't go grocery shopping with a list, don't head out one more time without this one, too:
- Make a list and train yourself to buy what's on it—and nothing else.
- Don't ever shop on an empty stomach. That box of donuts is going to look mighty tempting if you're starving.
- Choose a hand-held basket over a cart, when possible. When the basket starts to get full and heavy, you'll realize that it's time to check out.
Pricing techniques make items seem cheaper and more attractive for you to buy.
It might sound absurd, but studies have proven that consumers are way more likely to buy something marked $2.99 than $3. Perhaps more shocking, you might even be more likely to buy something marked $39.99 than $30, according to a 2009 study by researchers at Colorado State University and Washington State University.
Here's why: It's called left-digit effect, where shoppers focus on the number to the far left. “Price tags that end with 0.09, 0.95, and 0.99, called 'charm prices,' are more attractive to consumers compared to full-dollar pricing," Woroch says. Why? Because consumers typically round down. That means you're spending without really thinking about how much.
Outsmart it: This is an easy one, Woroch says: “Get in the habit of rounding up." So, those strawberries at $4.99 a pound become $5, rather than $4. Suddenly, your brain comprehends that it might be better to buy the apples that are in season at $2.99 a pound.
“Buy more, save more" isn't always true. It's more like “but more, spend more."
Have you fallen for the 10 for $10 signs, walking out with 10 boxes of mac /n cheese instead of the two you needed? Retail psychology banks on the fact that some consumers will buy 10 and think it's a great deal. In fact, when one major grocery chain tried putting one item on sale for $1, guess what happened? They saw a double-digit decline in sales, the New York Times reports.
Another pricing trick is putting random limits on items to make them seem more desirable. Lindstrom found that people bought more soup when they added the sentence "maximum 8 cans per customer." Even if the product wasn't on sale, shoppers assumed it was because of the limit and spent more money than they had planned to.
Outsmart it: Most stores will honor the 10 for $10 price even if you only buy 1 for $1; just ask, says Woroch. And before you immediately stuff the limit number of items into your cart, consider whether you really need that many or can use them before they get stale or expire. Bottom line:
"You're not saving if you are actually spending more than you planned," Underhill notes to Bankrate.
Sneaky shelf placement makes it hard to find the best deal.
Is it so hard to look up and down? Stores rely on the fact that most people are either too lazy or too much in a rush to get on our tiptoes or squat down to the floor to compare prices. That's why those pricier brands and sizes are right at eye level, perfectly accessible for you to grab and go.
There's also kid-level strategies at play. Think toys, cookies, sugary drinks and cereal. Those are located a touch lower, so small hands can grab them and entice parents to spend more as a “happy kid tax."
And finally, there's the checkout area, warns PopSugar. Keep your guard up when you're on line since it's where stores stock all the gum, candy, mints, and celeb-soaked gossip rags–and you're bored while waiting, so you pick up that $3.99 magazine— another $4 you hadn't planned to spend.
Outsmart it: Give yourself ample time to look up, down, and all around, says Woroch, to save serious cash every time you shop. And don't succumb to the checkout line impulse items. Keep yourself busy organizing your coupons, or try tallying what you think the total cost will be to see how close you can get. That has an extra benefit, too. “The more you know about how much things should cost, the more you'll be able to recognize a good deal when you see it," Woroch notes.
Thrifty beats tricky
Mindlessly shopping can be as dangerous as mindlessly eating, but instead of piling on pounds, you're likely piling on debt. And the worst part? Not knowing where your cash went at the end of a shopping excursion, the same way you're sometimes wondering where all those potato chips went as you clutch the empty bag.
That's why savvy shoppers learn how to recognize retail sales tricks so they can fight back. That means knowing exactly what you're planning to buy by preparing for a shopping trip with a list and a budget so retail tricks, like a “sale" that isn't, an appealing scent or a helpful salesperson, won't derail you.
When you plan ahead and shop mindfully, you'll walk out proud of your purchases—and proud that you were able to resist the sneaky sales tactics that leave other shoppers wondering where all their money went.
REMEMBER, "SHOPSMART" Don't want to spend too much money when shopping? Then, "SHOPSMART." This helpful acronym will help you beat any store tricks.
- Sale emails lure you in with a discount, but you're spending more.
- Have a plan and stick to it when you shop.
- Only buy as much as you need.
- Price tip: Round up, not down.
- Stick to your list and don't be distracted by bright, shiny packages.
- Mirror, mirror on the wall: You're not the fairest of them all. (It's a trick dressing room!)
- Advice alert: Ignore what the salesperson thinks.
- Read the fine print: Discounts like "50% Off!" are bright shiny things.
- The best deal is not always in front of your face—literally. Look up and down, except at the cashier's stand, where you shouldn't look around at all.
TECH IS HERE TO SAVE YOU Your phone is a powerful weapon to fight back against retail tricks. Be sure to look at these apps to see how they can help you save money. Use them to make those stores pay instead!
- GroceryIQ: Find coupons and share lists across devices.
- SavingStar: Get cash back on purchases when you link your store card.
- RetailMeNot: Access nearby coupons and deals on-the-go.
- ShopKick: Redeem gift cards by taking in-store action.
- CouponSherpa: Your guide (get it—Sherpa?!) to coupons for online or in-store.
- FreeShipping: Yep, this offers free shipping deals at your favorite stores!
- SnipSnap: Turns printed coupons into mobile-ready offers.
- Ibotta: Get cash back on groceries, clothes, and more.
- Vivino (Wines), Distilld (Spirits (mainly whiskey), Brewski (Beer): Scan the label on beer, liquor, and wine with your smartphone camera to check that you're not overpaying on booze.