I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I love more than a good trip to Target. Every aisle is jam-packed with the CUTEST [fill in the blank] you’ve ever seen. And I want it all. Target is my kryptonite.
When my kids were toddlers, Target–and occasionally the mall–were my excuse to get out of the house, to do something, and to be somewhere. I could put the kids in the stroller or strap them down in the cart, and, pretzel in hand, they were generally pretty content. And while I never actually intended to buy much, inevitably my cart ended up full.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this didn’t do much for my budget–or for my marriage. My husband and I started fighting more and more about money, and ultimately that is how I ended up starting this blog.
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But I know I’m not the only person who has headed to their favorite store “just to look” and found themselves buying more than they intended.
You see, retailers are wise to our resistance.
They spend tons of money on strategists, psychologists and planners who get to the core of how to best market and advertise products to shoppers like you and me, both in-store and online—and they don’t skimp on the details. Almost every store out there is laid out in a way that’s specifically designed to get you to spend money. From the moment you walk in, plans and tricks are in place, working to get you to spend, spend, spend.
And while ultimately we are still responsible for our decisions, part of being a savvy shopper is knowing how to resist this ambush on our senses, and knowing what to look for ahead of time. Once you’re aware of these retail tricks and gimmicks, you’ll be amazed at how just a little bit of mindfulness can prevent major overspending.
In-Store Tricks & Tips:
1. Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign
Retailers spend big dollars on signage and advertising. It’s Marketing 101. Customers respond to large, obvious signage. Clearance signs are usually in bright yellow and sale signs are in a very noticeable red. It’s hard to resist being drawn to a sale rack when there’s a big red sign yelling “SALE” at you. These signs create a sense of urgency; they catch our eye and pull us in.
2. Big Shopping Carts Right at the Front of the Store
How many times have you walked into a store and lingered between the baskets and the carts for a moment? Perhaps you only need an item or two, but what if you “need” a cart when you start shopping? Retailers are well aware that customers will buy more when it fits in their cart. Plus, the roomier the cart, the less full it looks—and they know you’ll keep filling and filling that extra space as you go along.
3. Complicated Coupons
As an experienced coupon user, I can tell you: coupons can be tricky. Once you understand them, read all the fine print, and become a familiar user, you can really save a bundle. However, for the coupon newbie, sometimes the deals aren’t worth the trouble. For example, a store brand item might be cheaper than a name brand item—even WITH a coupon. Other times, coupons can have complicated combinations or require you to buy multiples or items you don’t need just to get the deal.
4. Buy One, Get One (BOGO)
What could ever be bad about buying something at half off or getting two for the price of one? Nothing of course, provided you need both items. BOGO deals are a great way the store gets you to purchase two of something, when you really only need one. Plus, this is another case where the name brand is usually more expensive than the store brand, even with the sale. Oftentimes, stores use the buy one, get one half-off combination to draw you in and get you to go home with multiples (spending 50% more than you had planned).
5. Expensive Items at Eye Level
Stores like to place expensive items right at eye level. Grocery stores do this with name brand soups, cereals and pricier treats, but almost all retailers use this trick in one form or another. Clothing stores often put new items right out front, where they will sell for full price. Sale items and clearance are in the back, hidden out of your initial view. A discerning shopper must learn to avoid these eye-catchers and seek out the item needed.
6. Pop Music
When we listen to music, we relax and we tend to feel like we’re having fun. It adds a little spring to our step and we’re suddenly tapping our toes and filling up our cart in time with the beat. While most of us probably aren’t quite THAT extreme in our musical response, popular music has an effect on each of us. It can create feelings of nostalgia and trigger an emotional response to the items we’re purchasing. It can make our retail experience more fun and thus more fruitful.
7. Complicated Store Layouts
Have you ever wondered why grocery stores put produce on one side of the store and meat/deli on the other? It’s so you have to walk AROUND the entire store to get from one side to the other. Almost all stores create some navigational blockers and strategic layouts, forcing you to go through several extra areas to get to popular items.
8. Tempting Endcaps
We all know retailers put the best deals on the endcaps, right? Well, not always, but because this is such a common perception, when we see stuff on the endcap, we assume it’s a better deal and fill up our carts. Endcaps are often filled with seasonal items and impulse buys—think holiday decorations and food at Thanksgiving, or sunscreen and barbecue supplies in the summer.
9. Center Aisle Displays
Similar to endcap displays, center-of-the-aisle displays create an actual physical “roadblock,” giving us the feeling they must contain a hot sale or good deal. That temporary emotional reaction spurs an urgency to buy. Plus, it’s right in the center of the aisle, so you can’t help but check it out as you walk by. If these items aren’t on your list, sail right past!
10. Sensory Appeal
Stores use a variety of techniques to appeal to your senses. They might offer samples of food to taste, perfumes to smell, and overhead announcements and ads to get you to buy, and to create a sense of urgency. From the moment you walk in, you’re offered a sensory experience that helps you connect with certain items. “Feel how soft this blanket is,” or, “Smell these candles.” Resist shopping when you’re hungry or feeling vulnerable (tired, emotional).
11. Vanity Sizing
It sounds unbelievable, but many retailers use what’s called “vanity sizing.” How many times have you purchased a pair of jeans because they were a “size 6”—yet you normally fit in a 10? Vanity sizing is a little boost of confidence pushing us to swipe the credit card on an item simply because of the number on the tag. In reality, we should purchase items because we need them, they fit, they’re well made, and they go with the other items in our closet. Ignore the number on the tag!
12. Flattering Lighting
Have you ever tried on an item in the low, flattering light of a dressing room, as you gaze into the mirror, surprised at how thin you look? Similar to vanity sizing, retailers use flattering lights and mirrors so you look really great in the items you try on. I know swimsuit shopping can be horrible, and every little self-esteem boost is appreciated, but bringing an honest friend can be much more effective than relying on tricky mirrors and lights, which won’t be there on the beach.
13. Ridiculously Low Clearance Deals
When a retailer marks items down to 75% off or more, it can be almost impossible to resist. Unfortunately, these “deals” are perpetuating the cycle of “stuff” we keep accumulating. Cheap, trendy items on super-clearance draw us in and we end up buying, not because we love the item, but because it’s so inexpensive. By the time a retailer marks something down that far, chances are the store is taking a loss and just trying to clear out the stock. Rather than clogging up your closet with items the store doesn’t even want, let them go.
14. Checkout Quick Buys
You’ve finally made it up to the checkout lane! But chances are you haven’t dodged all the retail tricks quite yet. Grab-and-go buys for just a few dollars (like candy bars, magazines, Chapstick and gum) are right at the checkout so you’ll quickly add them to your purchase, without a second thought.
15. Credit Card Offers
Still in the checkout lane, your cashier is about to ask if you want to sign up for a store credit card and “save 10% today.” What they don’t mention is the high interest rates on most of these credit cards. Save 10% today yes, but you’ll be spending 25% on interest paying off your purchase down the road. Instead, try bringing just the cash you need for your purchase.
Online Tricks & Tips:
Online retailers also use quite a few tricks to get us to buy. It might be a little different than the in-person tricks of retail stores, but most of them are using the same concepts to get customers to purchase MORE.
16. Free Shipping
I know I’ve been guilty of adding one or two items to my cart JUST so I can get free shipping on my order. Stores understand consumers want free shipping, so they often set the price-point just slightly higher than their average item cost, forcing you to add an impulse buy or one more item to your purchase. If you’re shopping online, consider using retailers who offer free shipping on all purchases. Look for coupon codes on sites like RetailMeNot.com, or consider consolidating your online purchases and signing up for a service like Amazon Prime.
17. Email Signup Deals
Another way online retailers draw customers in is by asking them to sign up for email alerts, allowing them to save a small percentage on their order. It can seem like an easy way to save a little money, but in truth, your inbox will become filled with email sales, ultimately leading to more and more spending. Resist the urge to sign up for emails, and if you must, make it a policy to unsubscribe after checkout.
18. Pop-Up Ads and Smart Ads
Whenever you visit a site, “cookies” are stored in your web browser. This is why you get all those little reminders of items you looked popping up on your Facebook page, in your email, and on Google. Clearing your cookies periodically can help eliminate pop-up ads and banners. Once you resist a purchase, it’s oh-so-frustrating to have it continue to haunt your web browser.
19. Similar Items (Look What Others Bought)
Another online retail trick: offering up other items you might be interested in, based on your purchase. Once again, we can start to make associations, like, “I need this item to ‘go with’ the item I bought because other people are doing it.” It might not even be a conscious association, but these deals create the feeling that you need to get in on this deal and join the crowd. Stick to your list and get only what YOU came for.
20. Only 1 Item Left
When looking at shoes, clothes or makeup online, how many times have you been told there are only one or two left in stock? These tricks create a false sense of urgency. In reality, we have no idea how many items the retailer actually has available, and we don’t know what their stock really looks like. We feel like we’ll miss out if we don’t “act now.” In most cases, there will still be plenty of items available, even if you resist the sale.
21. For a Limited Time Only
One of the oldest tricks in the book is “available for a limited time only.” We hear it at restaurants, in the grocery store, and at movie theaters. This indication of exclusivity and urgency causes us to purchase impulsively so we don’t “miss out” on our chance. Often, the time limit is vague and undefined. If there IS a time limit, think back to “limited time only” purchases you’ve resisted in the past, and ask yourself how many have truly haunted you after the fact? I’m guessing we can all admit the answer is hardly any.
Hopefully by identifying a few of these retail tricks, you can resist the urge to spend and stop the flow of stuff before it even starts!