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How Stores Trick You Into Buying & Spending More

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Have you ever walked into a store planning to buy just one or two things and walked out an hour later with a whole shopping cart full of stuff?

If you’re like most people, this has happened to you at least once. It’s especially likely to happen in big department stores that carry a huge variety of items. In fact, some commentators call this phenomenon “the Costco effect” after the well-known warehouse store that entices shoppers with its wide array of items at seemingly irresistible prices.

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Well, it turns out the Costco effect is no accident. Stores and restaurants use an assortment of psychological tricks to push your spending triggers and get you to spend more money than you planned.

The best way to resist this kind of manipulation is to be on your guard. By knowing what tricks businesses use to lure you into overspending, you can recognize and resist them when you shop. Here’s a roundup of retailer tricks to keep an eye out for on your next shopping trip.

First Impressions

The manipulation stores use on you sometimes starts before you even walk in the door. It’s quite common for stores to place bargain bins right near or outside the entrance where passers-by can spot them easily. These tempting arrays of bargains can even lure you into a store you had no intention of visiting.

Other stores try to entice shoppers in with an eye-catching window display. Store design consultant Linda Cahan, speaking with Entrepreneur magazine, says shoppers are drawn to a clean, uncluttered display that showcases just a few products. As she explains, “space equals luxury” in the minds of most shoppers. When you see a single item sitting all by itself in the middle of the window, you automatically assume it must be something extra special.

Store Layout

Once they’ve managed to get you through the door, retailers really go to work on you. Every detail of the way they lay out their stores has been carefully planned with one aim in mind: to get you to spend, spend, spend.

Traffic Flow

A key premise of store design is to get you to move more slowly through the store. The longer you’re in the store, the more products you’ll see, and the more you see, the more likely you are to spend.

One way retailers slow you down is to lay out their stores with a counterclockwise traffic pattern. Brian Dyches, another retail expert interviewed by Entrepreneur, says most people’s instinct when they first walk into a store is to turn right. Retailers take advantage of this by laying out their stores in a way that encourages you to turn right and move counterclockwise. This makes you feel more comfortable in the store, so you’re more inclined to stick around and shop longer.

However, some research suggests that’s not the only reason stores prefer this layout. A 2007 study by The Association for Consumer Research found that people actually find it easier to shop efficiently in a store with a clockwise traffic pattern. They find the things they need more quickly, with less walking back and forth.

But this is exactly the opposite of what store owners want. Instead, they want to encourage you to do more walking and spend more time in the store. So, by laying out their stores in a counterclockwise manner, they make it harder for you to find things, giving you more time to wander around and make impulse buys. Martin Lindstrom, a marketing expert interviewed by Money magazine, confirms that people spend more on impulse purchases when they’re distracted rather than focused on a task.

Of course, short of turning their aisles into one-way streets, stores can’t force you to move in a particular direction. However, they can encourage you to turn right when you walk in by placing a particularly attractive display in that direction. For instance, Dyches points out that many Safeway supermarkets put the floral department, with its bright colors and pleasant scents, to the right of the entrance. This both draws customers in that direction and puts them in a good mood to shop.

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Aisle Design

Stores can also slow down your movement by the way they design their aisles. Retailers carefully engineer every aspect of their aisles, including:

  • Aisle Width. In a store with wide aisles, you can walk briskly along in a straight line until you find what you’re looking for. By making their aisles narrower, retailers can force you to move more slowly. However, they have to avoid making the aisles so narrow that they clog up, which could cause you to get frustrated and leave. The ideal aisle width allows you to move through the store at a slow but steady pace.
  • Breaks in the Path. Many big-box stores, such as Walmart, can’t make their aisles too narrow, because there has to be room for two huge shopping carts to pass. Instead, they slow down traffic by creating stopping points in the middle of the aisle, such as display racks or signs that catch your attention. Interruptions like these make you pause as you move down the aisle, so you see more of the merchandise.
  • Rounded Shapes. According to Dyches, people are more likely to stop at a display if it’s inside a U-shaped niche. This shape attracts shoppers by giving the impression of a pair of arms offering a welcoming hug. Other rounded shapes, such as circles, are also naturally attractive. A store can encourage more people to stop at a display by making the sign above it round rather than square.
  • What’s at the End. Stores want you to move slowly down an aisle, but they also want you to keep moving down it, not turn around halfway through. In order to lure you on, stores may put an interesting display at the end that you can catch just a glimpse of as you make your way down the aisle. For instance, Dyches says a long aisle can lead to a new department with racks laid out perpendicular to the direction you’ve been walking.

Shopping Cart Aisle Design

Shopping Carts

Many stores could get away with narrower aisles if they made their shopping carts smaller, but instead, they’ve been making them bigger and bigger over time. Grocery store managers interviewed by Slate said the average size of a shopping cart has nearly tripled since 1975. In an interview with Today, Lindstrom said the carts at Whole Foods nearly doubled in size just between 2009 and 2011.

The Slate article offers many possible reasons why carts have grown so much over the years, but the simplest is that the bigger the cart, the more shoppers are likely to put in it. Lindstrom tested this in an experiment, and he found that when he doubled the size of the cart, shoppers increased their purchases by roughly 40%.

Product Positions

Another key factor in a store’s layout is which items go where. By placing products strategically, retailers can direct your eye to pricier wares. They can also force you to walk longer distances through the store to find the products you want. The more ground you cover, the more merchandise you’ll see and possibly buy.

Here are a few of the tricks retailers use when positioning their products:

  • Start With a Bang. Retailers like to place an eye-catching display right near the front of the store. This makes you slow down to look as you enter, rather than make a beeline for the first item on your shopping list. Entrepreneur gives the example of Costco’s “large seasonal displays,” which show off some of the store’s snazziest items, such as TV sets and fancy watches.
  • Hide the Staples. Many supermarkets deliberately place staple foods like bread, milk, and eggs at the back of the store, as far as possible from the entrance. This forces you to you walk past a wide array of other foods before you can get the loaf of bread you came in for.
  • Divide and Conquer. Once you manage to get your loaf of bread, there’s a good chance you’ll want a jar of peanut butter to go with it. However, you’ll probably have to walk halfway across the store to find it. Retailers like to keep items that people often buy together in different parts of the store so they have to travel farther to get them both – once again, passing lots of other temptations on the way.
  • Highlight Pricey Items. As you’re walking down a store aisle, the products you’re most likely to see are the ones at your eye level. Store owners know this, and they charge brands a premium to have their products shelved at this height. Thus, the products that end up at eye level are typically pricier name brands that can afford to pay for this prime position. If you simply grab whatever catches your eye first, you could miss out on a cheaper store-brand product that’s on a higher or lower shelf.
  • Change It Up. When you’re new to a store, you have to spend more time wandering through the maze of aisles to find what you want. That’s good for the store since you’ll see more merchandise as you go. However, once you become familiar with a store, it’s much easier to go straight to the items on your list. In order to prevent this, stores rearrange their shelves frequently – sometimes as often as once a month, according to Business Insider. That way, every time you walk in, you have to start the hunting process all over again.
  • Tempt You at the Checkout. If a retailer hasn’t managed to tempt you into any impulse buys while you were shopping, it gets one final chance while you’re waiting in line at the checkout. Stores deliberately stock the checkout lanes with products people are likely to buy on impulse, such as candy, magazines, and small gift items. Some stores even limit the number of open checkout lanes on purpose to create longer lines, which give you more time to eye these temptations as you wait.

Pricing Strategies

Everyone loves a bargain. Stores know this and, ironically, exploit it to get you to spend more. They trick you into buying more of a product, or buying a product you wouldn’t normally buy at all, because it looks like such a good deal. In most cases, this means carefully manipulating the prices so their items look like a better value than they really are.

Anchor Pricing

One trick retailers often use with high-end merchandise, such as electronics or designer clothes, is anchor pricing. This strategy takes advantage of a cognitive bias known as the anchoring bias. The idea is that your brain tends to latch on to the first number you see and use it as a basis for evaluating all other numbers. So, for instance, if you flip open a fancy catalog and the first page shows a diamond bracelet priced at $25,000, then the slightly less fancy bracelet on the next page looks like a bargain at “only” $8,000.

For another example, consider the diamond-studded “Fantasy Bra” displayed every year at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. According to Cosmopolitan, the Fantasy Bra for 2018 included 71 carats’ worth of diamonds and was priced at $1 million. Naturally, there are very few people in the world who are willing – or even able – to spend a million dollars on a bra, but having it in the show still helps the store’s sales. It creates an anchor price for an extremely costly undergarment, thus making a $100 bra look reasonable by contrast.

To see how stores can use anchor pricing against you, suppose you’re going into a department store to buy a jacket. You’re planning to spend around $75 for it. When you enter the clothing section, the first thing you see is a prominent display featuring a fancy suede jacket. It’s gorgeous, but the $400 price tag makes you gulp.

However, right next to this display, you see a rack of fairly nice tweed jackets priced at $150. That’s so much cheaper than the suede jacket that you gratefully snatch one up. And just like that, the store has persuaded you to spend twice as much as you planned.

Sale prices are another type of anchor pricing. For instance, say that after picking up your new jacket, you spot some pants on the next rack priced at $50. This isn’t a bad price, but it’s not so great that you’d feel the need to snap them up then and there. But if the tag shows the pants are marked down from a regular price of $100, suddenly they look like an unbeatable deal.

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Sale Price Tag Deals Shopping

Goldilocks Pricing

A related strategy stores sometimes use is “Goldilocks” pricing, or displaying similar products in sets of three:

  • One product that’s very well made but very expensive
  • One that’s really cheap and looks it
  • One that seems to be decent quality and has a price right in the middle

The first product is too expensive for most buyers, and the second one looks too low-quality to be acceptable. This steers buyers toward the middle product, which looks like a much better choice than the cheap one and a great value compared to the expensive one. In short, like Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge, it’s “just right.”

To go back to our jacket-shopping scenario, suppose you aren’t quite sold on the idea of spending $150 for a jacket just because the first one you saw cost $400. You decide to keep looking for something cheaper. On the other side of the rack, you find a display of polyester jackets priced at only $40, but the fabric is thin and tacky-looking, and the cut is shapeless. After seeing what $40 can buy, you decide the $150 tweed jacket looks like a pretty good value after all.

Special Offers

Another way for stores to convince you you’re getting a bargain is to make it look like the price on the label is a special deal you need to snap up before it disappears. Some of the most common “special offers” are:

  • Coupon Deals. Using coupons when you shop seems like a no-brainer. How can you possibly lose money with a coupon that reduces the price? However, stores and manufacturers wouldn’t send out those coupons if they weren’t expecting to make money from them. They’re hoping to tempt you into buying things that weren’t on your list because they’re “such a good deal” with the coupon. If you go into a big-box store and buy $50 worth of clothes you didn’t need in order to use a $10 off coupon, you haven’t saved $10; you’ve spent an extra $40.
  • Limited-Time Offers. Another way retailers can get you to buy things that aren’t on your list is to warn that they’re only available at this price “for a limited time.” This creates a sense of urgency that triggers your fear of missing out. It prompts you to reach for your wallet right away rather than let this deal slip through your fingers, even if the sale price isn’t really that big a bargain.
  • Freebies. One of the easiest ways to get you to spend more is to make you feel like you’re getting something for free. Free gifts with purchase are one example. For instance, a $50 assortment of hair care products might not normally tempt you, but if it comes with a “free” tube of hair gel, all of a sudden it looks too good to pass up. Similarly, free shipping offers and BOGO (buy one, get one free) sales can tempt you to make unplanned purchases just to get that “free” extra.
  • X for $X. Suppose you’re at the grocery store, and you see a shelf full of canned beans with a big sign advertising the price as “10 for $10.” Unless the sign says “Must buy 10,” this is exactly the same as $1 per can. However, the store is betting that you won’t realize that. Instead of buying just the one or two cans you need, you’ll fill up your shopping basket with 10 of them, thinking you’re getting a discount that way.
  • Limits on Purchases. An even sneakier trick retailers use to get you to fill up your cart is to label the bean display “Limit 10 per customer.” This makes it look like the price is such an extra-special deal, the store has to limit the amount each customer is allowed to have. According to Lindstrom, adding the phrase “maximum 8 cans per customer” to the price tag for canned soup could cause customers to buy more of it even if the price hasn’t dropped at all.

Everyday Not-So-Low Prices

Although a special sale price can lure you into a store you don’t normally visit, you’re more likely to choose a store for your everyday shopping based on its regular prices. However, stores have ways of making those look lower than they really are too.

In his interview with Today, Lindstrom explains how supermarkets make their prices seem low by focusing on just a few products. You can’t keep track of the price of every single item in a store, but you notice the prices of staple items you buy all the time, such as eggs, milk, and toilet paper. If one store has the lowest prices on these few items, you’ll assume that store is the cheapest overall, even if the prices on everything else in the store are up to 10% higher than average.

Another common trick supermarkets use is to keep the price of a product the same but make the package smaller. For instance, a half-gallon carton of ice cream used to be a true half-gallon, or two quarts. Over the years, it shrank to 1.75 quarts and eventually to 1.5 quarts.

Tweaking the Numbers

You’ve probably already noticed that stores are more likely to price their products at $3.99 or $49.99 rather than a flat $4 or $50. The idea is that when you see the number $49.99, your mind notices the initial figure and skips over the rest. You think of the item as costing only “40-something dollars” rather than roughly 50 dollars. A 1996 study in the Journal of Retailing confirmed that stores sell more when they offer prices ending with “.99” rather than rounded off to the nearest dollar.

Sometimes, however, retailers work against this expectation by pricing products at an even dollar value – say, $40 instead of $39.99. A 2015 study in the Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) found that when you see a product priced this way, you’re more likely to evaluate it based on emotion, rather than calculating whether it’s a good value. This can make you more likely to buy when you’re shopping for something personal or recreational, such as a house or a handbag.

The study also found that when people are shopping for something practical, such as an appliance or a tube of toothpaste, they’re more likely to choose a product with a non-rounded price, such as $98.76. Stores take advantage of this fact by assigning their utilitarian products prices that end with random-looking digits – for instance, $5.87 rather than $5.99. This kind of pricing gives the impression that the price has been slashed to the absolute limit, making it appeal to the practical, value-seeking part of your brain.

Toothpaste Aisle Price Colgate

Status Pricing

One type of product that the JCR paper found people are more likely to buy with round-dollar prices is luxury goods, such as a bottle of champagne. A 2001 study published in the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly points to one possible reason for this: Most consumers associate prices ending in a zero with higher overall quality. A price expressed only in whole dollars conveys the impression of a high-end product, the kind of brand that isn’t concerned about small change.

Some high-end restaurants take this one step further by leaving off not only the cents column at the end of a price but also the dollar sign at the beginning. Rather than “Strip Steak, $27.99” or even “Strip Steak, $28,” the menu will read simply “Strip Steak, 28.” A 2009 study at Cornell University found that customers at an “upscale casual” restaurant spent about 8% more overall when the menu did not include dollar signs.

Appeals to the Senses

No matter how much time you spend in a store or how good the prices look, you won’t buy anything if the products themselves aren’t appealing. That’s why retailers go to great lengths to dress up their wares and make them as tempting as possible. But they don’t stop at making their products look good; they go out of their way to appeal to your other senses too. They carefully engineer the sounds, smells, and even tastes in their stores to create an atmosphere that puts you in a mood to buy.

Color

One of the easiest ways for stores to make a display appealing is to use lots of bright colors. Supermarkets often put their produce and floral departments near the front of the store because their vivid colors draw your eye and put you in a good mood. According to Today, they sometimes even bulk up their produce displays by stacking the fruit and veggies on top of empty cartons. This both creates the illusion of abundance and spreads those bright colors over a wider area.

However, stores don’t limit themselves to using color to catch the eye; they also use specific colors to trigger particular moods and feelings. A 2006 study at the University of Winnipeg found that people generally make up their minds about a product within the first 90 seconds, and anywhere from 62% to 90% of that decision is based on color. So choosing the right color for a product or a display is crucial for stores that want to boost their sales.

In 2013, CNN talked to marketing experts about which colors retailers use to trigger different reactions. Here’s what they learned:

  • Red. Many stores like red because it’s such a bright, eye-catching color. However, experts say the use of red on signs can backfire because you could see it as a stop signal, leading you to spend more cautiously.
  • Pink. While red can be exciting or even alarming, bubble-gum pink can actually calm you down. A 1979 study in the Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry found that exposure to this color could reduce aggression and increase relaxation. That’s good for stores since it can make you more laid-back about spending money.
  • Orange. Shoppers tend to associate this color with fairness and affordability. That’s why this hue is popular with value-oriented stores like Payless and Home Depot.
  • Yellow. The color yellow can increase your energy level and appetite. That makes yellow and gold shades a popular choice for fast-food restaurants.
  • Green. These days, we associate the color green with the environmental movement. Retailers can use it to literally “greenwash” their products, making them look more eco-friendly without actually changing the way they’re made or packaged.
  • Blue. If you’re like most people, you like the color blue. That makes you more likely to see a store or a product dressed in blue as trustworthy and dependable. A 2003 study in the Journal of Business Research (JBR) found that changing a store’s interior from orange to blue made people like the store more and be more inclined to make a purchase there.
  • Black. Retailers use black when they want to make a product look luxurious and sophisticated. That’s why it’s a popular color for packaging high-end makeup. In a store display, a solid black backdrop can make products look more luxe. Brown and burgundy are also good shades for signaling luxury and refinement.

Lighting

Another way retailers can manipulate your mood is with lighting. The overall level of light in a store is important. If it’s too dim, you won’t be able to see the products well; if it’s too bright, it can feel harsh or glaring – not the right mood for a cozy little boutique.

Stores can also use light to focus your attention on specific areas. Shining a bright light on an item or a display draws your eye, which can be useful on lower shelves you’re more likely to overlook.

Lighting Store Bright Illuminating Retail Space

Music

Stores use sounds as well as sights to influence your behavior. Any sound, even random background noise, can affect your spending. A 2012 study in JCR found that a moderate level of background noise increased the chance that consumers would buy an “innovative” product, such as a highly engineered pair of running shoes, over a “traditional” product, such as an old-fashioned pair of sneakers.

However, most stores don’t settle for just playing white noise over their loudspeakers. Instead, they choose specific types of music to tweak your mood and activity level.

For example, the tempo, or speed, of the music in stores influences how fast you walk. A 1982 study in the Journal of Marketing found that when a supermarket piped in slow music, shoppers both walked more slowly and spent more money in the store than when they heard faster music or no music at all. Ronald Milliman, the author of the study, followed up with a 1986 study in JCR that found diners in restaurants finished their meals faster when they heard fast music. That’s a good thing for restaurants since getting you in and out fast frees up the table for another customer.

The type of music makes a difference, as well. Several studies have shown how the music you hear in a store can influence your shopping choices.

  • French or German. For a 1999 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers set up a mixed display of French and German wines in a supermarket, then played either French or German music nearby. It found that shoppers were more likely to choose French wines when they heard French music and German wines when they heard German music, even though most of them said they hadn’t noticed the music.
  • Familiar or Unfamiliar. A 2000 JBR study tested whether people would spend more time shopping when they heard well-known songs as opposed to more obscure ones. The results were surprising: The shoppers who heard more familiar music thought they had spent more time in the store, but in reality, they spent 8% less time shopping. The researchers argued that the familiar tunes stimulated shoppers more, leading them to shop faster.
  • Pop or Classical. A 1993 study by the Association for Consumer Research looked at how different music genres affected purchases in a wine shop. It found that shoppers chose more expensive wines when they heard classical music as opposed to Top 40. The researchers suggested that the classical music created a more “sophisticated” atmosphere, steering customers toward higher-end wines. Another study, published in the International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research in 2009, found that customers in a flower shop spent more when they heard “romantic” music rather than pop or no music.

Smells

Good smells can certainly be a selling point for restaurants. You’re much more likely to find yourself in the mood for barbecue if you just happen to walk past a barbecue place that’s sending out an irresistible aroma of grilled meats. Smell is important in grocery stores too. Many grocery stores put their bakery department right near the entrance, where the enticing smells boost shoppers’ moods as they walk in.

However, research shows that an appetizing smell can also boost sales of products that aren’t edible. In his interview with Money, Lindstrom says he was able to boost sales of ovens and fridges in an appliance store by 23% when he filled the store with the smell of apple pie, thus putting shoppers in the mood to bake.

Findings like these have given rise to an entire business: scent-based marketing. Farah Abassi, an expert in this field, told the American Marketing Association that people spend as much as 44% more time in a store that’s pleasantly scented – and, of course, more time in the store means more spending.

Specific smells that are likely to tempt shoppers to spend are:

  • Warm, Not Cool. A 2017 study in the Journal of Marketing found that people buy more expensive goods in a store filled with “warm” scents like vanilla or cinnamon than in one filled with “cool” scents like peppermint or lavender. Their explanation: Warm scents make a store feel more crowded, which makes people feel powerless. Spending money on high-end products helps them get their sense of power and status back.
  • Simple, Not Complex. Another study done at Washington State University in 2012 suggests that simple scents are more likely to trigger spending than overly complex ones. When researchers exposed shoppers at a home-decor store to a simple orange scent, they spent more than shoppers who smelled either a complex orange-basil-green tea scent or no scent at all. The more complicated scent was too mentally distracting, taking customers’ minds off their shopping.
  • Subtle, Not Strong. Abassi notes that it only takes “a minute amount” of scent to get a reaction from customers. Thus, it’s in a store’s interest to keep the scent level just high enough to be detectable. The stronger it is, the higher the chance that some customers will find it overpowering and want to get away from it.

Free Samples

Many stores, such as Costco and Trader Joe’s, regularly give out free samples of their food products. Needless to say, they wouldn’t give away products if they didn’t expect to make money on the deal. They know that free samples can encourage customers to spend in several different ways:

  • Getting You in the Door. When you know a store is in the habit of giving out free samples, there’s always a chance you’ll come in just for the goodies, even if you’re not shopping for anything in particular. Once it gets you in the door, the store can go to work on you with all its other tricks to get you to buy.
  • Promoting New Products. If you see a bag of fancy cookies at the store for $16, you might hesitate to spend that amount of money on something you’re not sure you’ll like. Letting you taste the item for free gets you past this objection.
  • Making You Feel Guilty. Even if you think the new cookies are just OK, there’s a chance you’ll feel obligated to buy them anyway. Having taken the free sample, you might feel you owe the store something in return. Even if you don’t buy the $16 cookies, you might decide to buy something else you didn’t need so you won’t be seen as freeloading.
  • Arousing Your Appetite. Munching on a free cookie triggers your appetite, which makes you more likely to buy other food items. There’s some evidence it could also make you more interested in expensive non-food items. A 2008 JCR study found that eating a free chocolate truffle increased people’s desire for luxury goods such as fancy electronic equipment, jewelry, and designer clothing.

Food Samples Cheese Variety Cured Meat

Sales Pitches

Most retail sales strategies involve one person: you. However, if a store can get you to interact with an actual salesperson, that opens up a whole new bag of tricks it can use. Salespeople know a variety of techniques to persuade customers to buy. These include:

Letting You Handle the Merchandise

When a salesperson encourages you to pick up a shirt and feel the quality of the fabric, they’re not just trying to be helpful. Physically handling the product creates a sense of attachment to it that makes you more willing to buy. A 2009 JCR paper found that when shoppers handle goods, it creates a sense of “ownership” that makes them reluctant to part with the objects.

Handling the merchandise can also increase the price you’ll pay for it. A 2010 study in the American Economic Review found that consumers were willing to pay between 40% and 61% more for a variety of objects – such as mugs, DVDs, and snack foods – when the objects were right in front of them rather than shown in a photo.

Upselling & Cross-Selling

Suppose you’re looking for a pair of shoes, and you’re planning to pay about $50 for them. Rather than merely showing you shoes in that price range, the salesperson can try to “upsell” you by suggesting a similar pair that costs $80 – which will earn them a bigger commission if you take the bait.

A related technique is “cross-selling,” or pointing out similar products you might want to buy at the same time. For instance, once you’ve settled on a pair of shoes, the salesperson can “helpfully” point out some nice socks to go with them.

Deliberate Rudeness

Salespeople at some high-end stores, such as Gucci, act snotty and rude to you, treating you like you’re not worthy to shop there. You would expect this to be a turnoff, but ironically, it can have just the opposite effect; like a high school student rejected by the cool kids, you become even more desperate to join the clique by buying something at the store.

A 2014 JCR study (amusingly titled “Should the Devil Sell Prada?”) found that customers see high-end brands more positively and are more willing to pay for them when salespeople give them the cold shoulder.

Excessive Friendliness

Being rude to customers is a strategy that only works for high-end, luxury brands. Many mass-market stores take exactly the opposite approach: They encourage their salespeople to be not just polite, but excessively friendly. Salespeople in these stores try to create a sense of intimacy by talking to you as if you were a close friend or family member. This makes you feel guilty if you don’t buy something, as if you’re letting down your “friend.”

Mirroring

Another way for salespeople to create a feeling of closeness is mirroring, or subtly copying your gestures and tone of voice. A 2011 study in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services found that customers bought more products, paid more attention to the salesperson’s suggestions, and had a more positive impression of the store when salespeople mirrored their behavior.

Touchy-Feely Saleswomen

If the salesperson you’re dealing with is female, physically touching you can help her persuade you to spend. A 2010 study in Psychological Science found that both men and women became more willing to take risks with their money when a female researcher patted them lightly on the shoulder.

However, this strategy only works for saleswomen, not for salesmen. In the 2010 study, a gentle pat from a male researcher didn’t have the same effect on subjects, possibly because it was more likely to make them uncomfortable.

Final Word

Once you understand how retailers try to influence your behavior, you can learn to fight back. For instance, if you know retailers are trying to make you turn right and walk counterclockwise around the store, you can deliberately turn left and walk the other way. If their big carts are designed to make you buy more, you can foil them by taking a handheld basket instead. You can defeat anchor pricing by looking only at the products that are in your price range and disregarding all others, and mentally translating “10 for $10” to “$1 each.”

For more tips and tricks to help you spend less at the store, check out our shopping archives.

Can you suggest any other ways to fight back against retailer manipulation?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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