Before You Buy
Retailers are onto us. Real-time price alerts sent to your inbox, money-saving apps on your smartphone, retailer aggregators to browse before you buy — they know consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to shopping. But while it’s easier than ever to bargain hunt and compare prices, the sticker price isn’t the only factor influencing what you buy and when you buy it (and that price tag isn’t always what it seems). That’s why retailers have taken to sophisticated tactics for covert persuasion.
Increase your consumer intelligence quotient and learn to outsmart retailers by paying attention to these six traps they use to make you spend more.
Selling products is about selling emotion. How do you feel in relation to a brand? What does it evoke in you? Scent is widely considered to be our most emotional sense, due in part to our impressive capacity to recognize distinct scents: Richard Axel and Linda Buck won a Nobel Prize for their work in understanding our olfactory system, which allows us to identify and categorize 10,000 scents, all of which can trigger powerful nostalgia-laced memories. This means scent can subconsciously affect our cognition and behavior.
Studies have shown that ambient scents in a retail environment can produce positive feelings toward that brand (including your likelihood to return to the store) and affect purchasing habits. Scent marketing companies, like Scent Air, are enlisted by retailers, hotels, and restaurants to produce branded scents that build an emotional connection between consumer and brand. According to the Scent Marketing Institute, specific scents actually correlate with different consumer behaviors. For example, the scent of fresh baked goods sells more homes, the scent of leather and cedar convinces us to buy luxury furniture, and citrus encourages us to browse longer and spend more.
Outsmart them: Shop on a full stomach and keep something minty in your mouth while you browse. Peppermint satiates hunger and is powerful enough to serve as a barrier to other scents that may be temptingly wafting toward you.
Sometimes what we purchase has less to do with the item itself and more about where it rests in relationship to our bodies and line of vision. Placing more expensive items at eye level is a widely-recognized trick for grabbing your attention (so be sure to look down for lower prices). But this practice isn’t limited to adults: Retailers also place key items at heights that hit at eye level for children, in the hopes they will then appeal to parents to make the purchase.
Many stores create “rest areas” where you’re more likely to linger for a prolonged period of time, and therefore rest your attention on their products. Less expensive, high margin items are often placed near the front of the store to get you to start filling your cart, and of course items in the checkout line capture your attention when you have nothing better to do than gaze intently at them.
Outsmart them: Look down. Many comparable, less expensive items are often placed on lower shelves. Take an extra moment and force yourself to do a double-take before you grab and go to the register. (And give your kids a budget or a gentle, but firm, no.)
Retailers know that everyone loves a bargain (it actually gives us a high), so stores try to make you think that’s what you’re getting — regardless of the reality. “Valued shopper cards” are a pervasive tactic for selling the bargain myth. You may receive a reward of one free item after purchasing 10, but you’re also more likely to make purchases you don’t need, just to reach that 10 item goal.
Bargain promises are hard to resist. A sale sign in a window lures you into the store, even if you aren’t looking to shop, and just a few sale items near the entrance will get you psychologically excited to spend money. If it’s a limited time sale, the urgency encourages you to buy more, without too much deliberation. This is particularly true for online flash sales — retailer tricks are pervasive in the digital world, as well. Surveys find that the cost of shipping is one of the top reasons people abandon virtual shopping carts. That’s why most retailers have implemented a “free shipping” policy. However, that free shipping comes with a price: You usually need to purchase a minimum amount to reach that threshold, which makes you continue to shop and fill your virtual cart in an effort to score the free shipping.
Outsmart them: Check yourself when you’re shopping during a sale. Do you really want that item? (A $30 shirt is not a bargain if it just sits in your closet.) It can help to put the items on hold, even for an hour, and walk around. And make a policy for yourself: It’s okay to shop around for a site that offers free shipping, but it’s not okay to shop for more items to obtain free shipping. Then hold yourself to it.
Retailers grab your attention by immersing you in a strategic environment, not just presenting you with a product. Creating an atmosphere of retail theater puts you in an altered mindset and affects your purchasing patterns. Music, in particular, plays such a large role in setting this consumer stage that many companies will hire “audio architects” to design a custom soundtrack that aligns with the brand and its goals. Some retailers will even match specific music with particular zones of the store to complement the products and further animate the “scene.”
Some types of music are more persuasive in getting you to open your wallet: Studies indicate that classical music communicates luxury and affluence and increases spending (think that department store piano player was just for your listening enjoyment?). The pace of the music has been found to affect purchasing, as well, with slower music making you more relaxed and likely to browse longer, while loud, fast music raises your heart rate and increases per-minute sales — while also making you more likely to make impulse purchases.
Outsmart them: Reclaim the airwaves: Put in your earbuds and create your own retail soundtrack while you shop. Feeling mellow? In a hurry? Match your mood to your personal playlist and take back auditory power.
Pricing strategies are at the forefront of creating the bargain illusion: A study in the Journal of Consumer Research looked at the “left-digit effects” and found that an item that ends in .99 or .95 — what they refer to as “just below price” — sells significantly more than its pennies higher equivalent. In fact, its psychological pull is so powerful that in one experiment a $3.99 pen outsold the $2 pen by 44%. Stores also place luxury products next to less expensive items so your brain thinks the cheaper of the two is a bargain, even if the less expensive item is overpriced.
Outsmart them: Enlist digital tools as a reality check while in the store. Use the Amazon price check app to be sure you’re actually getting a bargain and not being duped.
Shopping Cart Labyrinth
You may have noticed that many large retailers are a physical maze. A store layout is often like a winding racetrack, and studies indicate that shoppers will mindlessly follow this set path, leading them to encounter more items than a direct route would elicit. Essentials are often hidden in the back behind many things you either don’t need or likely aren’t looking for, and being forced to hunt for your purchase leaves you feeling satisfied once you do actually find what you want.
While you’re navigating that maze, your shopping carts facilitate your journey. Shopping carts were invented in the 1930s with the intention of making the shopping experience more enjoyable, less strenuous, and thereby facilitating the purchase of larger items with ease — and increased frequency. Over the years, shopping carts have increased in size by nearly 40%, and some retailers offer oversized bags to put all your potential purchases in, creating a large psychological void for you to fill.
Outsmart them: Unless you’re buying an oversized item, commit to carrying your items. You’ll be more conscious of what you’re purchasing and won’t be subconsciously tempted to buy more just to fill the cart.