It happens to everybody. You make a list, you know exactly what you need, and then somehow you walk out of the store with a mile-long receipt full of impulse buys, stuff you didn’t know you needed, and well-as-long-as-I’m-here items. Think you’re just lacking in self control? Okay, maybe… but it’s not just about you. Stores use all kinds of tricks to get you to spend more than you intended, and lots of them are pretty subtle. They know that thanks to the internet and smartphones, we do our homework — heck, sometimes we even do it right in their stores. That means they’re willing to pull out all the stops to make sure that once you’ve made it through the door, you won’t leave empty-handed. Here is what you can do to keep from falling prey to some of stores’ most common tricks.
1. Forge your own path.
Any store larger than a boutique is generally laid out in a predictable way to help you find what you’re looking for, with clearly demarcated sections. But this isn’t just to help you cross items off your list; research on consumer behavior has had an enormous influence on how stores are set up, meaning all those neat little sections are actually optimized to tempt you by taking you past all kinds of items you don’t necessarily need.
Retail guru Paco Underhill, who’s consulted for a who’s-who of American businesses, has all kinds of handy terms for these tricks. Ever wonder why milk, butter, and eggs are always all the way at the back of supermarkets and convenience stores? No, it’s not because it makes the refrigerated cases easier to stock. It’s simply to get you to walk all the way through the store to get these staples — which Underhill calls “destination items” — and thus have the opportunity to pass all other kinds of merch. Same thing goes for clothing stores: There’s a reason why basics like denim are always at the back of the store.
Even more subtle is a tactic Underhill calls “the invariant right.” We tend to walk the same way we drive; in the U.S. we keep to the right not just on the road, but also on escalators, jogging paths, and pretty much everywhere, including stores. In Underhill’s research (which includes extensive amounts of video documenting how shoppers move through stores), people in the U.S. nearly always turn right when they enter the store (we keep saying “in the U.S.” because in countries where people drive on the left, like England, yup, shoppers totally turn to the left when they head into a store). This means that stores place items that they want to move in exactly this sweet spot, usually about 30 feet in from the door (an area Underhill calls the “decompression zone”). For example, think about Target. What are almost always the first merchandise areas you see? Seasonal items (right now, bathing suits, sprinklers, pool noodles, and other summer gear at full price) and their “dollar spot.” The dollar spot is full of $1-$3 items which seem like deals (so cheap!) but are pretty unlikely to be items you actually came in looking for (e.g., a plastic contact lens case that looks like an owl). But once you’ve started buying, you’re more likely to keep buying… after all, you have to wait in that line anyway.
Outwit the stores by shopping not only with a list, but with a plan. You don’t need to draw an actual map of the store, but if it’s anywhere you visit often, you probably have a basic mental map of where things are. Headed to Target to stock up on paper towels, or to replace a lost TV remote? Instead of drifting to the right and straight into the heart of the “decompression zone,” head purposefully to where the stuff you need actually is. Not sure where that would be? Ask a salesperson instead of hunting for it yourself.
2. Look up and down.
This sounds so simple, but it’s a key way to save money at the grocery store, where food and product manufacturers pay big bucks to get prime real estate in the middle shelves. Why the middle? Yes, it’s where most adults tend to look — we’re used to expecting the big brands to be there — but more importantly for food sellers, it’s also eye-level for kids (little ones riding in the shopping cart and bigger ones walking on their own). Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that children can be highly influential on parents’ purchases due to what they termed the “nag factor.” Kids see brands or characters they recognize, or even just colorful packaging, and they’re likely to ask for the product (or if it’s within reach, just grab it). When parents balk, that’s when the meltdown begins. Wanting to avoid a major tantrum is often reason enough to skip the coupons, ignore the shopping list, and just buy whatever full-price, premium-maker item is making little Billy or Susie turn purple. Retailers and manufacturers are well aware of the sway kids have over parents’ purchases (especially dads, according to the same researchers), so the priciest stuff is invariably on those middle shelves.
With or without kids, shop smarter — and cheaper — by looking up and down at the grocery store. Foods are generally organized in vertical stripes of comparable items. The lesser-known brands and the generics aren’t in the running for prime shelf space, so they’re more likely to be displayed on the higher or lower shelves. Yes, you may have to bend or stretch (potentially putting you at risk of the shopping deterrent Paco Underhill has dubbed “the butt-brush factor”), but it will help you to legitimately comparison shop instead of just defaulting to the big-name item that’s right in front of you.
3. Do the math to get the real price.
There’s a reason so many prices end in “99.” Marketing researchers call it the “left-digit effect.” Studies have consistently found that in comparing the values of similar items, shoppers believe they are getting a better deal when they buy something that’s this “just below price” than for a similar item that is a “round price” ending in 00. The effect is so strong that items ending in .99 or .95 can outsell comparable items that are actually cheaper but have a price ending in .00. That’s not all: A pair of researchers from Clark University and the University of Connecticut have also posited a “right-digit effect.” They found that when shoppers saw regular and sale prices with identical left digits (so say it was .99 either way), they perceived there to be a larger discount when the right digit was less than 5 than they did when it was greater than 5. This means that even when something is less discounted — say a flat-screen TV that was on sale for 10% off at $429.99 — it might seem like a better value than something that is actually a more substantial discount (like another flat-screen TV with a 25% discount that costs $549.99).
While for lower-cost items this matters less, for high-end goods like that flat-screen TV it can make a big difference. The incentive to save can feel more intense, not just because that’s a big chunk of change, but because retailers will often impose scarcity (e.g., you need to be one of the first shoppers in the door on the big holiday weekend to grab one of these!). This is all the more reason to do the research and figure out what’s really a good value. Research prices and features before you head out to the store. Already there and feeling the rush of a potential bargain? Use a price check app like The Find, ShopSavvy, or ScanLife (all available for iOS and Android) to compare the price you’re seeing in the store with local brick-and-mortar and online options.
4. Don’t buy more than you can carry.
If you live in a big city and don’t own a car, this is a no-brainer — no one wants to be that jerk trying to cram into a crowded subway car with a bunch of giant boxes. But if you’re at a sprawling big box store, it’s all too tempting to grab a cart while you cruise through the maze of aisles. Once you’ve got that cart, well, it’s pretty easy to fill it up. Shopping carts these days are super-sized (the average one has ballooned more than 40% since they were first invented back in the ’30s), making it easy to load up on all kinds of non-essentials. Aristotle believed that nature abhors a vacuum, and retailers know that shoppers do, too: Give ’em something big enough to tote it all, and they’ll fill it up.
To make sure you’re not just tossing items in to fill the void, skip getting a shopping cart unless you know you’re buying an oversize item or you’re specifically making a big trip, like a weekly grocery run. For smaller errands, forego even the basket and just pick up what you need. If it’s not worth juggling while you’re waiting in the checkout line, you probably don’t need it.
5. Don’t be drawn in by deals.
Here’s a totally obvious statement: People love deals. Researchers have shown that when shoppers think they’re getting a deal, it’s not just about the money; there’s also a deep sense of satisfaction that folks who study retail marketing call “smart shopper feelings.” Scoring a deal doesn’t just gratify your ego (“I’m a savvy shopper!”), it also gives you warm fuzzies and a feeling of fairness. Remember a couple of years back (2011, to be precise), when J.C. Penney announced they were getting rid of sales and coupons, and would instead offer “fair and square pricing” at all times? Chances are you don’t, because that was a spectacular failure — in less than two years, the guy who came up with that plan was out, the CEO he’d replaced was back in, and there were coupons and sales once more.
What made “fair and square pricing” such an epic fail? Another totally obvious statement: People love feeling good. If prices are always the same, you don’t get “smart shopper feelings” — in fact, you might feel like the retailer is taking advantage of you. In reality, the opposite is more likely to be true. Stores use all kinds of tricks to get you to buy more than you really want (or to buy things you didn’t even want to buy in the first place!) by offering deals. For example, think of all the items that are priced lower if you buy more than one. A single pair of basic panties at Victoria’s Secret costs $10.50, but somehow, if you buy five pairs, that costs $26.50. If buying five costs just over twice what two should at “regular price”, why on earth would you buy just one? Well, you wouldn’t — which is how Victoria’s Secret makes sure that every time a gal doesn’t feel like doing her laundry, she’ll drop nearly 30 bucks there instead of just over 10.
If you’re reading this, you probably want to avoid spending more, and yes, looking for sales and deals is one way to do this. The key though is to do a quick gut check before you whip out your plastic. Is this something you actually need? Will you really wear it? And if you really want to push yourself, do a little thought exercise: What are three outfits I could wear this with? What are three times this month where it would have been handy to have this? You don’t have to swear off sales for good, you just want to be sure that you’re not just getting a deal for the sake of getting a deal.
6. Never shop on an empty stomach.
You often hear that it’s a bad idea to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry: If your stomach’s growling, you can find yourself salivating like Pavlov’s dogs at products that are not even remotely on your list (ooh, stroopwafels!). But it’s actually a good plan to have a full belly when you’re shopping, period. Why? Brick-and-mortar stores get that shopping is a sensory experience; the ability to see, touch, feel, and smell what you’re buying makes you more likely to whip out your credit card and buy something that you might waver on if you were shopping online. But it goes beyond that — retailers are constantly coming up with new ways to stimulate your senses. Researchers from Penn State and the National University of Singapore found that when shoppers experienced pleasant “ambient stimuli” that created a cohesive lifestyle “servicescape,” they were more likely to enjoy shopping and to make impulse purchases. A great example of this? Anthropologie, where one of the first things you notice upon entering is the aroma of burning votive candles in scents like “Baltic Amber” and “Santiago Huckleberry.” Before you know it, that $88 peasant top and $168 throw pillow don’t seem like splurges — they feel like vital components of your new upscale bohemian lifestyle.
Even at stores that don’t sell anything edible, scent can trigger your emotions, leading you to spend way more than you intended. How to avoid it? First, shop when you’ve already eaten: If you’re feeling satisfied, you’re less likely to respond to scent triggers. For bonus points, beat them at their own game by chewing minty gum or wearing peppermint lip balm. Peppermint has been shown to trigger feelings of satiety, and by having that strong scent right below your nose, you’re less likely to notice the store’s scent.
7. Make your own playlist.
Speaking of “ambient stimuli,” another major way retailers get you feeling spendy is by setting the mood with music. Researchers have found that, like scent, creating a “cohesive” environment with music can spur an emotional reaction that helps you envision a lifestyle — and how that item in front of you would totally fit with it. For example, French researchers found that customers in a flower shop spent significantly more when love songs were played in the background. In contrast, playing non-romantic pop music had the same effect on sales as playing no music at all — neither made much of a difference. A terrific example of this is H&M, which offers not just “fast fashion” but fast, loud music. At a store like H&M, pumping in Rihanna dance remixes serves a number of purposes. One, loud, youth-oriented music signals that this store is for young adults — if it’s too loud, you’re too old. Two, the beat keeps you moving, or at least feeling like you’re moving, which is key in a place with notoriously long lines for fitting rooms and checkout.
Shop to your own tune by popping in your earbuds. If you’re really serious about it you can make a shopping playlist, but really you can listen to just about anything — music, an audiobook, a podcast — so long as you tune out the store’s siren songs.
Featured photo credit: Andrejs Zemdega via istockphoto.com