It happens to everyone. You head to store with a simple shopping list—and leave with armloads of (generally unnecessary) stuff you hadn’t planned on buying. That’s no accident: Retailers know exactly what they’re doing, and leverage social engineering in creative ways to get you to spend more money without realizing you’re doing it.
Whether that means engaging your senses in a clever way or simply playing around with how prices are written, you face a barrage of clandestine psychological manipulations and Jedi mind tricks the moment you step in the store. But, as with all Jedi mind tricks, if you know it’s happening, you can protect yourself—and, in this case, your wallet. Here’s what to look out for.
Grouping Products in a Price
You might just want one or two cans of cat food, but when you see that the price is “6 for $5” there’s a decent chance you’re going to round up your purchase to what’s on the tag. “Many people buy the amount, or buy in increments, that are advertised—five for $5, they end up buying five boxes of couscous or whatever it happens to be,” John T. Gourville, a professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, told Fast Company. It’s a quick trick to ensure product flies off the shelves at a steady clip.
Designing the Store Like a Maze
Just as casinos are intentionally designed to disorient and misdirect the average gambler who strolls onto the floor, supermarkets are also laid out in a way to make it difficult to find a quick exit once you enter. There’s a reason the aisles run the entire length of the store with no breaks to let you move easily from one to the next—it requires you to spend more time in the store, gazing at far more labels than you would if you just got what you needed and left.
Putting Sensory Overload Up Front
When you enter a grocery store, among the first things you are likely to encounter are the produce department, the baker, or the flower shop. The reason? All of these excite your senses and make it more likely you’ll stick around.
As National Geographic puts it, “the sensory impact of all those scents, textures, and colors (think fat tomatoes, glossy eggplants, luscious strawberries) makes us feel both upbeat and hungry. Similarly the store bakery is usually near the entrance, with its scrumptious and pervasive smell of fresh-baked bread; as is the flower shop, with its buckets of tulips, bouquets of roses, and banks of greenery. The message we get right off the bat is that the store is a welcoming place, fresh, natural, fragrant, and healthy, with comforting shades of grandma’s kitchen.”
Keeping Essentials in the Back
While you are likely to encounter lots of exciting sights and smells right as you enter a grocery store, the things you actually need invariably require you to make your way all the way to the back of the store. For instance, milk, bread, and eggs are buried in the supermarket, ensuring you have to do a whole survey of the place—which likely leads to you picking up a few things in the process—before you get to the stuff you’re there for.
Slating Popular Items in the Middle
Another go-to strategy used by supermarkets is to place the most popular items in the middle of the aisles, leading shoppers to be distracted by the numerous other options they pass as they seek out those items. This is sometimes called the “bommerang effect,” getting shoppers to travel the longest distances (and pass as many products as possible) to reach the most popular items.
Offering Eye-Level Enticement
Consumer research finds that shoppers start looking at a shelf at eye level, working from left to right as they decide on what to purchase. To guide shoppers to buy the things they want them to, retailers put the items with the highest perceived value or the highest profit margins on the shelf at eye level, part of a practice known as Commercial Placement, or Margin Product Placement.
Spraying Canned Scents
There’s a reason you smell fresh-baked bread when you walk into the supermarket, or chocolate chip cookies when you pass the Auntie Anne’s in the mall, and it’s not just because people in these stores are baking.
Sellers deliberately channel the smells of their products in a way that it entices passersby throughout the day (not just the morning, when most organizations do their baking). Some stores have even been known to use scent machines to catch potential customers by the nose.
Staging Impulse Buys
Whether at book stores or outdoor supply sellers, we’ve all handed a little something to the cashier that certainly wasn’t on the shopping list. By offering, at the point of sale, tempting products, snacks, and trinkets that don’t cost too much but offer a little boost to the average shopping trip, retailers increase their bottom line by having shoppers spend more than intended on products that generally don’t cost much to produce.
If you encounter a $50 toaster at a department store, you might think that seems a little steep, but if it’s set next to a $110 toaster, you suddenly might start thinking that it’s a pretty good deal. Retailers call this strategy the “decoy effect”—using one model of a product to shape your perception of the other (the Wall Street Journal delved into this with a case study at Williams-Sonoma—a $275 bread maker saw a sales spike when another model was introduced at $415).
Research on consumer behavior has found that when shoppers view a product before a price, they judge the product based on its quality, and when they see the price first, that’s what they judge. Knowing this, retailers tend to feature the low prices for low-quality products more prominently while all but hiding the high prices of high-quality products (watches, high-end jewelry, A-list designer clothing, that sort of thing.), ensuring not only that the consumer isn’t scared off by the price, but that their attention is focused on the quality, not the price, of the product.
Not only do retailers regularly roll out “new and improved” versions of the products in their stores (often, the same exact thing with a slight cosmetic tweak), they also move products around, so the same items are not always at the exact same place on the shelves. This ensures customers find new offerings—and new opportunities to spend money—each and every time they visit the store.
Rude Treatment (At High-End Stores)
Research has found that at upscale stores like Barney’s or Tiffany’s, a little coldness from the sales staff can actual lead customers to spend more money. Like the “mean girls” at high school, a snobby seller is able to use social pressure to get unsure shoppers to feel compelled to buy a pricier product.
Putting Things in Smaller Packages
Those mini Coke cans are not only popular with consumers, they’re a big hit with retailers, since research has found that buying multi-packs of that kind leads people to actually consume more overall.
Encouraging Bulk Purchases
It turns out that when retailers add phrases like “maximum 8 cans per customer” to the price of soup cans, sales jumped, giving shoppers the illusion they are getting a deal or that the price is lower than usual, even when there’s no discount offered.
Giving Out Treats
Of course, it makes sense that a free sample of a tasty product might make you more likely to buy it. But it turns out that freebie snacks can entice a shopper’s taste for nonfood products as well. One study found that consuming a free chocolate boosted shoppers’ desire for everything from designer shirts to Mac laptops. It’s no surprise, then, that luxury shops nowadays are starting to offer up treats to get shoppers in the mood for buying.
Dropping the Dollar Sign
It turns out consumers are more willing to break out their wallet when the price tag says “32” rather than “$32,” research out of Cornell University finds. The same researchers even learned that even spelling out the word “dollar” rather than using the dollar sign itself gets shoppers spending 8 percent more.
Fostering Perfect Ambiance
Atmosphere is everything when it comes to getting you to spend money. Researchers found that appliance stores that generated the smell of baking pies boosted sales of ovens and refrigerators by 23 percent.
Playing a Perfect Playlist
The music played in a store is no accident, either. Researchers have found that playing German or French music in a wine shop impacted how many bottles from those respective regions were sold, while another study discovered that background noise (such as the chatter of a mall or café) not only gets individuals to think more creatively, it also “leads to greater adoption of innovative products” which is just fancy corporation-speak for “buy more stuff.”
Making Carts Larger
The first thing you encounter when you enter a store is often a deluge of oh-so-convenient shopping carts, which make it a breeze to load up on enough goods to stock your fridge for weeks. Consumer researcher, and author of Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom has found that the amount you buy is consistent with the dimensions of your cart, and that consumers spend up to 37 percent more when their cart is larger.
You may have found that you have rarely looked as good in an item of clothing as when you’re trying it on in a fitting room. That’s not an accident, according to Lindstrom, who says “playing with the light is a huge” way that retailers manipulate shoppers into making purchases, often adding a slight tint of rose to create a fresher-faced appearance than what you might look like in your bathroom at home.
Whether it’s clothing, electronics, or food, retailers usually make sure that products are well within reach—and will even go as far to encourage to feel the product, especially if it’s a fabric. Since studies have found that people who touch things are more likely to purchase them, it’s more the exception than the rule for retailers to urge shoppers not to touch the merchandise.
Getting You to Join the Club
Practically every store has its own loyalty program and rewards card—from gas stations to luxury goods. And there’s good reason for that: customers generally spend more at stores where they are members or see their purchases as earning them bonus points that somehow garner them a better deal.
While a buy-one-get-one deal has long been a proven way to boost sales, retailers have found they can up their sales by riffing on the idea while getting you to buy a lot more than just “one”—for example, buy $75 worth of product, get $25 off; buy four get the fifth free. You’re likely to see a big promotion for a $50 discount—with only the fine print mentioning that you have to spend $250 to enjoy the savings.