More Holiday Marketing Tricks: How Stores Are Designed to Wear You Down

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In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp are back with more warnings about the mind games that advertisers and retailers play on us -- and they play with extra intensity during this most profitable time of the year. Not that they're suggesting you become a Miser -- Heat or otherwise -- but they do want you to know precisely how you're being manipulated to open your wallet.

In this segment, they explain why it sometimes seems stores are designed to make it hard to just get in and get out. Simple reason: The longer you stay, the more likely you are to start buying a ton of stuff you didn't plan to. And that's hardly the only layout hack they're using against you.

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A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Dec. 12, 2017.

Alison Southwick: The last one we're going to talk about today is an actual physical store layout and things that they do in stores to get you to stick around, because that's the whole goal. The thinking is we want you to stick around as long as possible because the longer you stick around, the more likely you are to buy things. So, here's why stores want us to stay in there longer, and that's because they want us to go just a little crazy.

According to a study by Bangor University of brain scans, rational decision-making is exhausting and after about 40 minutes of shopping, people stop being rationally selective and instead they just begin shopping emotionally. This is the point at which we accumulate about 50% of the stuff in our cart...

Robert Brokamp: Oh, really?

Southwick: ... that we never intended to buy. Stores want you to stay as long as possible so that they exhaust you mentally and you start going on a crazy spending spree.

Brokamp: Wear you down.

Southwick: Yes. With that in mind, here are a number of general things that stores do. They provide great, big carts for you push around, because once your cart is full, you'll feel compelled to check out. Also, if you're holding a bunch of stuff. That's one of my secrets for when I go to Marshalls or TJ Maxx [we all know that's my Achilles' heel], is that I don't let myself pick up a cart, because at some point I just look like...

Brokamp: You have too much stuff.

Southwick: ... an idiot holding all this stuff and I'm dropping stuff everywhere. That's when I'm like, "OK, Alison, you've got to leave now." People tend to go counterclockwise when they enter a store. If you imagine yourself entering a department store, you're going to go to the right. Entering a grocery store you're going to go to the right.

Sometimes you'll see very expensive items right there because that's the place that you're likely to notice. Or you might actually see really cheap items right as you enter a store, like socks or a travel mug. These are called open the wallet items. The idea is that once you start buying stuff, even if it's just a six-pack of socks, you will then just keep buying more and more stuff. If I'm going to go the register, I'm going to keep buying more stuff. The dam's already leaking.

Grocery stores will put staples along the outside aisles, forcing you to cover the whole store. Maybe everyone knows this one. The fruits and vegetables are going to be way over here on this side of the store. Dairy's going to be way over on the other side of the store. The bakery's back here. The butcher is back here.

Brokamp: Where's the candlestick maker?

Southwick: That's trying to get you to cover as much ground in the store as possible. I don't know if you've noticed this, but when you enter a grocery store, there will often be flowers right there. That's so you start associating freshness with the store immediately.

Brokamp: I thought about that last week when we talked about smells, because I associate fresh cut flowers and all that with very pleasant memories and I figure that's a good smell to hit once you enter a store.

Southwick: Maybe that, too. It's better than putting French cheese as soon as you enter the store.

Brokamp: Or the butcher shop? Oh, my gosh.

Southwick: Or the butcher. Eye level in a store is a very prime location because as humans we're apparently so lazy we don't want to squat or reach up. If you're looking eye level, that's where the more expensive stuff is. Generics are going to be lower. Or, if you're a kid, that's where they're going to put all the stuff that's going to appeal to kids at their eye level. Supposedly, if you go to a grocery store and go to the cereal aisle, the sugary cereals are going to be kid eye level and lower, and the adult cereals are going to be at our eye level.

Here's another crazy thing that stores do. If you have ever been lost or disoriented in a mall or store...

Brokamp: It was on purpose?

Southwick: Ikea. It was on purpose. It's called the Gruen Transfer, and it's named after this mall architect named Victor Gruen. Stores like that are trying to slow you down and make you lost on purpose so that you'll shop more.

Brokamp: Really?

Southwick: Yes. I think Ikea is the best example of this.

Brokamp: Totally.

Southwick: Whenever you walk through an Ikea, you're just like, "What? I know maybe side tables come after couches. I don't know where I am."

Brokamp: Big department stores, too. Macy's. I felt disoriented at Macy's this year.

Southwick: Yes, did you? Oh! Old man Brokamp getting lost in Macy's. We're going to hear the name over the PA. "Mrs. Brokamp, your husband is lost and looking for you."

Brokamp: Please take him out of the lingerie section. Please!

Southwick: Similarly, when you're shopping [and maybe this happened to you at Macy's], if you suddenly come across a traffic jam and people are trying to navigate a tight spot, you're thinking, "Oh, my gosh. What idiot decided to put a display, right here, in the middle of the aisle?" That was no idiot. That idiot did it on purpose. It's a speed bump in the store to slow you down and get you to notice things around you to buy.

Brokamp: Got you.

Alison Southwick owns shares of The TJX Companies. Robert Brokamp, CFP has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends The TJX Companies. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.