I blame my suspicious nature on my neighborhood grocery store. The store used to be a logically arranged market with bright lights and clean floors—a basic, friendly, functional place to shop.
Then the bulldozers morphed it into a big fancy supermarket complete with clothing, mood lighting and cushy chairs. And hidden cameras.
I have nothing against beautiful spaces and modern conveniences, but I’m no fool. I knew all of this effort was to one end: to get me to spend more. Take the “Three for $6!” special of the week. “Why not just say $2 each and drop the exclamation mark?” I muttered to myself as I placed one jar of spaghetti sauce in the cart. Before I could wheel away I had my answer: I saw several customers dutifully place three jars in their carts. Not two, not four, but three jars.
That response was no accident. In fact, that’s a simple example of how retailers use tricks to persuade consumers to buy more.
It’s been a few years since I had the privilege to interview Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping. Retailers hire Underhil’s company, Envirosell, to follow thousands of shoppers a year in person and on videotape, observing their every move.
Using this information, the stores find ways to get people to shop longer, spend more and return often. Underhill and his crew are so good at what they do, they can tell retailers what will entice people to enter the store, which way they’ll look once they’re inside, and more.
How important is consumer persuasion to the marketplace? “If we went into stores only when we needed to buy something,” Underhill told me, “and if once there we bought only what we needed, the economy would collapse. Boom.”
No one wants the economy to get any worse, but we don’t want to overspend either. So our defense as consumers is to educate ourselves. Here are 7 tricks together with easy ways to outsmart those sneaky retailers.
Ambience. Retailers know that as much as 70 percent of all purchases are unplanned! They want you to linger as long as possible, so they create an atmosphere that’s inviting to the store’s target audience. The music, the lighting, the displays are all designed to pull us in. Outsmart it! Don’t browse. Just get in, get what you need and leave. True needs are not discovered while standing in a store aisle.
Colored Walls. Stores use certain colors according to the audience they’re trying to reach: Younger people tend to like bold colors; older people prefer softer hues. “Universally, a soft shade of blue creates a sense of calm, which makes people want to stay longer,” says Underhill. Outsmart it! Take note of a store’s colors. Just being aware of them helps you take control.
Easy Access. Underhill shared his research that shows that if you touch something, you’re more likely to buy it. That’s why products like stuffed animals and candy are placed within easy reach of children at the grocery checkout. Outsmart it! Hands off. Don’t touch the merchandise even to look at the price tag unless it’s something you’ve planned to buy.
Spacious Shopping Carts. A cart frees you to touch more things. “Stores that offer baskets or carts sell more than ones that don’t,” says Underhill. “And when stores increase the size of the baskets, they often find that shoppers purchase more items.” Outsmart it! Forget the cart. Or at least opt for the smallest one.
Shrinking Products. This one often goes unnoticed. A “3-pound” can of coffee is now 28 ounces but still costs the same amount. And how about that “half-gallon” of ice cream that’s now 1.5 quarts? Though it’s not limited to food products, this trick is prevalent in supermarkets. Outsmart it! Know your weights and measures as well as your prices. If the item has shrunk, try a different brand or wait for a sale.
Milk In the Back. This trick is as old as they come, yet it will get you every time if you’re not mentally prepared. This forces you to go through the store, exposing you to all kinds of other items that might grab your attention. Outsmart it! Make a beeline for what you want and leave. Or bring only enough cash for what you need.
Clever Wording. Stores count on the fact that most people assume words like “Special!” or “Hot Deal!” mean the same as “On Sale!” Don’t believe it. Outsmart it! Keep track of the regular prices of the items you buy most often; you’ll know right away if it’s really a sale. If you’re not sure, check the shelf label for the regular price or ask a store employee.
It’s no wonder, I suppose, that the more I learn about the science of shopping and the ways retailers attempt to manipulate us into buying beyond what we ever intended, the more I prefer to shop online. Of the seven silent persuaders above, I can avoid at least six of them. That leaves the clever wording, which I’m getting better and better at noticing then completely ignoring.