On every shopping trip, you have two missions: to find what you need (or want), and to find it at as low a price as possible. But, unfortunately, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing and research, the second mission is often impossible. At every turn, retailers try to deceive shoppers with barely noticeable cognitive tricks. The result: you’re spending a lot more than you need to.
Yes, whether you’re restocking your pantry or refreshing your wardrobe, there are clever promotions and sneaky packaging decisions abound. But, like a magician’s illusion, if you’re aware of them, they suddenly stop working. Herein, you’ll learn how to defend yourself against the surreptitious onslaught—and save boatloads in the process.
Pay Attention to Sounds and Smells
Some of the most effective ways retailers seduce shoppers into making purchases is through their senses—pumping pleasing scents through the store or playing soothing music. These factors can serve as subliminal messages that prime us to make purchases without even realizing it.
So be sure you realize it: pay attention to the sounds and smells of a store and how you’re responding to it. Once you’re aware of it, chances are that you will be less likely to be sucked in by it.
Time It Right
Smart shopping is often all in the timing. Instead of buying a nice winter jacket when the temperature drops, buy it in spring when prices drop. If you know you’re going to send holiday cards next year, pick up a pack just after this year’s Christmas season has ended. Plan ahead and you’ll save half the cost or more.
Stock Up When on Sale
Just as you should buy products when they aren’t at their peak season, you should also stock up on nonperishable necessities you know you will need when they are on sale. You know you’ll always need more paper towels and toilet paper, and having a stockpile of pet foot is always going to come in handy, so when the store is offering those at a good price, you should take advantage of it buy more than you might otherwise.
Don’t Let the Anchor Price Pull You Down
An “anchor price” is a strategy used by retailers to tweak your judgment, making you think a price is more reasonable by putting it next to a much higher price. For example, while you might usually think it’s crazy to pay $180 for a set of headphones, when it’s sold in the store next to headphones that cost twice or three times that, you’re going to start thinking it’s reasonable. Know about how much is a good price to pay before you get to the store so you don’t get pulled down by this anchor.
Consumer Reports Is Your Friend
There’s a reason Consumer Reports has been around for more than eight decades. A nonprofit organization that thoroughly researches each product category that it tackles, their assessments are reliable and a good starting point when trying to get an idea of how much is reasonable to pay for a particular product and the range of options that are available.
Don’t Give Too Much Weight to Online Reviews
While you’ll want to get a sense of what shoppers who actually bought the product say about it, shoppers can easily be caught in the trap of believing overly positive online reviews. For a variety of reasons, online reviews are skewed toward four or five stars, making it hard to get a clear sense of which products are actually of good quality. For example, on eBay, the average of all sellers is 98 percent—not making it very easy to see much difference between one or another.
Limit Your Focus
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the vast number of options available, and online shopping has only opened the floodgates further. It used to be, you just had to go to one or two stores and see what they had. Now your choices are seemingly endless. That makes it important to limit your focus before you start looking.
“It takes a lot of effort just to consider all the options available—to go out and find them and evaluate each one,” Alexander Chernev, a consumer behavior researcher and marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tells Scientific American. “You always have to give up one thing for another. Do you prefer better coverage or lower price in health care? In buying a car, do you prefer performance, or comfort, or fuel efficiency?”
Don’t Bow to Social Pressure
One of the most powerful motivators for your shopping decisions comes not from retailers but from your friends and peers. One study found that if someone next to you on an airplane bought a snack, you would be 30 percent more likely to buy something yourself. That logic can extend to a variety of other areas, where you might feel inspired to make a purchase just because someone else did it. Don’t give into the pressure!
Be Careful Whom You Shop With
This social pressure extends to who you do your shopping with. If you head to the store with big-spending friends who rack up their credit card bills without concern, you’re likely to get caught up in their free-spending attitudes. The group, not the individual, often ends up deciding how much is spent, so be sure you are surrounding yourself with other smart shoppers.
Do the Math
Promotions, freebies, and buy-one-get-one offers can often be enough to get shoppers to make a purchase they otherwise wouldn’t since they convince themselves it’s saving them money. The easiest way to avoid falling into this trap is to actually break down the amount you will be paying at the end of the day and determining if you’d pay that much for the items at some other store, if it wasn’t wrapped in a promotion that made you focus on the deal you were getting more than the real cost.
Don’t Be Swayed by Scarcity
One of the most effective ways marketers get you to spend your money is playing on your anxieties related to scarcity. “Scarcity is very primal,” Kelly Goldsmith, assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, told Scientific American. “When people see the world as running out of anything, the research shows it makes them crazy selfish—it starts to explain things like Black Friday violence.” Ask yourself if you really need that shirt or dish set, or if you only want to buy it because you just found it out it might soon be unavailable.
Respect the Shopping List
Shopping lists aren’t just valuable for helping you to remember what it is you need to buy at the store—they’re also a good way to keep your spending within reason.
“Imagine your average trip to the grocery store,” Goldsmith told Scientific American. “We go with good intentions, to get our bread and milk, then we’re bombarded by in-aisle displays and coupons that are meant to arouse us or change our minds about what we actually need.”
If you are sure to bring a list with you and make that dictate your purchases, reducing the chance you’ll make impulsive purchases.
Make an Online Shopping List, Too
For the same reasons, the shopping list works well for online shopping, too. Just as store displays and advertisements can be powerful distractors from your shopping mission, banner ads and “Customers who bought this also bought…” messages can cause you to fill your cart with things you wouldn’t have otherwise buy. Don’t give in to it. Stick to the list.
Remember That Time Is Money
Saving money is important, but in your efforts to keep costs down, don’t lose perspective of the fact that time has plenty of value as well (some might say more value). So be sure any calculation of savings includes the amount of time required.
There may be a killer sale at the outlet an hour from your house, but will you actually be getting enough savings from spending two hours roundtrip plus gas to make the trip worthwhile? Sometimes the answer may be yes; but usually it will make more sense to shop closer to home at full price.
Express Isn’t Always Best
Speaking of saving time, the express checkout lane is a reliable time saver—usually. But when a lot of people line up with less than 10 items, it can end up taking longer than the line with a couple people who are doing a bulk buy.
Math researcher Dan Meyer has found that since it takes a certain amount of time for each individual to “say hello, pay, say goodbye and clear out the lane” (an average of 41 seconds per person and three seconds for each item), the number of people is far more likely to affect the time checkout takes than the number of items they buy.
Help Out the Cashier
You can also speed up your time at the store by doing your part to help move things along. Robert Samuel, founder of line-waiting service Same Ole Line Dudes, suggested to the New York Times several ways shoppers can speed up the checkout process themselves: face the bar codes to the cashier; remove hangers when buying clothes; and consider “using the buddy system” for express line—splitting the items between a partner or friend to stay under the express limit.
One of the best ways to keep your spending under control is to think bigger picture. When you feel temptation to buy something that you likely do not need, stop and consider what your long-term goals and values. A series of studies in from psychologists Brandon Schmeichel of Texas A&M University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota found that writing down these long-term priorities leads people to have more self-control when they face this kind of temptation or feel tired.
Focus on the Practical
Some of the most impulsive shopping decisions happen when you get caught up in a desire for immediate gratification. “If you think about how you’re going to experience and enjoy the chocolate bar sold near the cash register, you’re more likely to succumb,” as Chernev told Scientific American. Better instead to approach shopping with a strictly practical mindset—what exactly you need and what purpose it’s for.
Cut Costs of Online Deliveries
Delivery charges can add significant costs to your final bill if you aren’t careful. There are a few smart ways you can get around these. Some stores offer free delivery if you spend over a certain amount or if you deliver to one of their stores rather than directly your house. Be sure to always search online for the name of the store and “free delivery coupon code”—you’ll be surprised how often that works. Or just look for a shop that offers free shipping—something that’s only become more common.
Take a Deep Breath
Seriously. Many irresponsible shopping decisions are made in a passing moment of excitement or anxiety, where the shopper gets overcome with the feeling that they must make a purchase or they will regret it. These feelings can often be put in perspective with nothing more than a few deep breaths, helping clear your head and get you thinking more rationally about whether you really need what you’re convincing yourself you need to buy.
Be sure to join the loyalty programs for your favorite stores, which can offer all kinds of discounts, deals, and special offers that make it well worth it to put up with the occasional marketing email. But remember, you don’t have to join them all: these benefits can run the gamut and you should do your research on which programs offer the best ones.
But Don’t Get Locked in By It
While joining loyalty programs has its advantage, you don’t want to be loyal to the point that it gives you tunnel vision and you don’t look at what sales and offers you can get from your favorites brands’ competitors. Keep an eye on what the other stores are offering and don’t be afraid to shop around, even if it means missing out on accruing points.
Especially for big-ticket items like furniture or outdoor equipment, buying brand new often just doesn’t make sense. You can often find items by big-name brands for a fraction of their usual cost and often still in great condition.
Google, Google, Google
Before you pull the trigger on a purchase, check how much it’s going for elsewhere by doing a search on Google. While you’re there, type the company name and “coupon code” into the search field, too. You never know what might pop up.
Don’t Go to the Grocery Store Hungry
Yes, the age-old advice is still wise. You are much more likely to buy more than you’ll actually be able to eat and the kind of impulsive snacks and junk food that you probably don’t need when you’re at the store on an empty stomach. Eat before you shop.