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 schmancy supermarket complete with shopping triggers of mood lighting, Starbucks, Panda Express and lots of comfy chairs.
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 of my hard-earned money.
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. Retailers hire experts like Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, and his 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 a lot more.
How important is consumer persuasion to the marketplace? “If we went into stores only when we needed to buy something,” Underhill to me in one of my favorite interviews of all time, “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 12 tricks to know about.
1. Trigger: Beautiful 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.
2. Trigger: 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. Meanwhile, most fast-food restaurants are decorated in vivid reds and oranges, which encourage us to eat quickly and leave—exactly what the fast-food operator wants us to do.
Outsmart it! Take note of a store’s colors, then smile knowingly. Just being aware of them helps you take control.
3. Trigger: Carpeting
Have you noticed more stores using carpeting? That’s because it can help influence patterns of travel around a store, starting just inside the shop entrance. Carpeting subtly directs you deeper into the store by creating a defined path for you to follow.
Outsmart it! Create your own path. Step off the carpet and shop for the items you came to buy.
4. Trigger: Strategically Placed Merchandise
“Some retailers insist on displaying their most expensive items up front. It makes everything else seem inexpensive afterward,” warns Robert Cialdini, PhD, author of Influence: Science and Practice.
With sale items, it’s a kind of double trick. We get pulled in by the promise of a sale, but once we’re inside, those sale items often aren’t clearly displayed or as desirable as we thought. But, because we’ve already mentally decided to buy, we often buy something else.
Outsmart it! If the “buy” you thought you wanted turns out not to be what you were led to believe, take a moment to think about it. Don’t feel compelled to buy something else to make up for it.
5. Trigger: Easy Access
Research 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, and soft blankets or cozy sweaters are positioned strategically on low tables at a store’s entrance.
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.
6. Trigger: 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.
7. Trigger: 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. Pay attention to the unit price listed on the shelf (the cost per ounce, for example).
If the item has shrunk, try a different brand or wait for a sale.
8. Trigger: The Food Court
Of course, it’s convenient, but it also keeps you at the mall so you’ll do more shopping.
Outsmart it! Leave the mall once you have what you need. If you do eat at the food court, leave right after.
9. Trigger: 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. Supermarkets typically put the quick pickup items of milk and eggs way at the back of the store. This forces you to go through the store, exposing you to all kinds of other items that might grab your attention. What was supposed to be a quick stop for milk turns out to be bags filled with other stuff you couldn’t resist.
Outsmart it! Make a beeline for what you want and leave. Or bring only enough cash for what you need.
10. Trigger: Cosmetics Near Shoes
These are the two top purchase areas for female mall shoppers. Retailers know that while you’re waiting for the clerk to bring shoes to try on, your eyes will wander. Those two minutes are highly profitable, Underhill told me because many women will wander over to cosmetics afterward. And the more mirrors on the counter, the more likely you’ll be to buy. Why?
Simply catching your image in a mirror reminds you just how much you need new lipstick, he says.
Outsmart it! Buy the shoes and get out of there. Or the makeup. Rarely will you arrive needing both.
11. Trigger: Helpful Salespeople
Who doesn’t like a helpful sales clerk? But just know that because, according to Underhill, “The more shopper-employee contact, the greater the average sale.”
Outsmart it! Seek help only if you really need it.
12. Trigger: 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. A big display of picnic food items with a sign announcing, “Summer Blowout!” is not necessarily filled with great bargains.
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.