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 cues.
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"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."
Tip: 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 soothing."
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.
Tip: 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 in isolation."
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."
Tip: 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 originally planned."
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 Steinman.
Tip: "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 certain products.
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 says.
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 item."
Tip: 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 16."
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 says.
Tip: Evaluate a potential purchase based on how much you think it's worth (try using a price comparison smartphone app, such as Amazon's Price Check App), rather than on how much a retailer tells you it used to be worth.
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 forever."
Tip: "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."
Your bottom-line 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 influenced."