7 Ways to Outsmart Retailers’ Clever Tricks That Get Us to Spend More

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.

Don’t miss: How to Shop with CASH at Amazon

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.



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  • Kathy Parlee

    Mary- You had me until you said you prefer to shop online to avoid retailers tricks. You must realize that tricks devised by the study of behavioral economics are being used by online retailers as well! Amazon has this down to a science, a Prime membership may get you ‘free’ shipping but the price is often inflated to include the cost of shipping. For example, I purchased a few large garden tools last spring that I then found at my local Home Depot and Target for 30-40% less then I paid through Amazon! Fool me once, shame on them, fool me twice, shame on me! I now use Amazon to research reviews but I now look locally for items before I will buy online.
    In my opinion, if you are not price shopping, defaulting to online shopping is like using the local convenience store to buy groceries, you pay much more for the convenience.

    • kcjmc

      I have gone on hiatus from Amazon after they refused to do anything about an overseas seller posting inaccurate size info. Sure, the seller was willing to pay for return shipping, but never did correct its erroneous size info, which means that many buyers won’t go to the trouble of repacking and shipping the item back — like people that only have Saturdays to do so with post offices that close at noon — and that seller can continue to make money on clothing people can’t wear.

      • Janie

        I had the same problem. I contacted PayPal, but they only wanted to give me a partial refund. I pointed out that there wasn’t even an invoice included in my package. I called my bank and explained the situation. They got me a full refund and contacted the company in China as well.

    • Hi Kathy … I hope you realize that “online” does not mean single online site, nor that I’m not the queen of price comparison! I’m grateful that HomeDepot and Target—the two retailer you cite—have great online presence, takes returns at their stores and some even price match. Thanks for your comments!

  • Sherry Batson Flowers

    Don’t forget the retailers that mark up their merchandise even higher than it was then advertise they are having a big ‘sale’. When, in fact, the sale price is higher than it was before it was put ‘on sale’. If you know in advance what is on your Christmas list do a little window shopping in October then when you are ready to start shopping for Christmas gifts you will discover the false advertising. I have found this to be true with Victoria’s Secret, Costco, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Ulta and the list goes on. So next year do your Christmas shopping in October if possible.

    • Sherry … You’re so right! That’s why it’s important to know your prices. Excellent comment!