A person standing in front of a store

The Top 12 Shopping Triggers and How to Outsmart Them

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.

A person standing in front of a store

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. It was evident the moment I entered the all new, super modern, tripled-in-size, mega supermarket. Everything from the music to the colors, to the placement of the busy bakery seemed ultra contrived. 

Take the “3 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. 

Educate yourself

That response was no accident. In fact, that’s a simple example of how retailers use tricks to persuade—dare I say manipulate—customers 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, on video, and online observing their every move. Underhill’s book is a fascinating read.

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. And while much of our shopping has moved to online rather than in-store, the science of persuasion and the tricks retailers play to improve their bottom line have not changed—they’ve simply taken on a new appearance.

Our defense as consumers is to educate ourselves about shopping triggers. Here are the 12 tricks we need to know about. 

1. Inviting atmosphere

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. 

Take Costco, for example. It’s not due to lack of space that so many things you’ve not seen before are stacked at the entrance. That tactic is so strategic, management has even given it a name: Treasure Alley. It’s where the most impulsive decisions are made and if you don’t believe that, next time you’re in Costco—even Sam’s and BJ’s for that matter—and observe as people pour through the doors and stop short about 10 feet in, as they start loading their carts.

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Outsmart it!

Don’t browse. Just get in, get what you need, and leave. Know before you go. True needs are not discovered while standing in a store aisle.  

2. Strategic colors

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. Those colors may be on the walls of the brick and mortar store, or the online retailer’s website. It’s subtle. You may not be aware of how you’re being played to prompt a sale.

“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 or website, then smile knowingly. Just being aware of them helps you take control. 

3. 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, used as a subtle shopping trigger, 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. Don’t fall for pop-ups on a website that want to guide you around to show you all the cool stuff you should add to your cart.

4. Strategically placed merchandise

“Some retailers insist on displaying their most expensive items in the front. It makes everything else seem inexpensive afterward,” warns Robert Cialdini, PhD, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. 

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. 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. Don’t put it in your online cart with the plan to delete it later, before you check out.

6. 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. 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. Food court 

Of course, it’s convenient, but it also keeps you at the mall or big box store. Just think about how many stores like Walmart and Target have added a food type court to their stores. Yes, food courts are great shopping triggers. 

Outsmart it!

Leave the place once you have what you need. If you do eat at the food court, leave right after. 


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9. 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 know you need. 

10. 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. Helpful salespeople

Who doesn’t like a helpful sales clerk or invitation to “live chat?” 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. 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. 

There you have it—12 shopping triggers you need to know and then keep at the front of your mind no matter where your shopping may be. Remember these are guiding principles—tactics you can easily translate to stores like Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, Walmart, and Target.

Once you cross the threshold into that store or make the first click on the website, you’re being targeted for persuasion. Get smart, stay fully aware!

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12 replies
  1. Linda Radosevich says:

    Our neighborhood grocery store is one of the smallest stores in the state’s chain, but as one clerk said to me, “It has everything you need, but not everything you WANT.” They have provided smaller carts (large, small, and ‘baby’) which I appreciate. And if you want to see how you are manipulated to pass by everything in stock, visit an IKEA. you have to follow the maze or get lost!

    Reply
  2. Bonnie says:

    The pandemic has definitely changed the way I grocery shop. Since I want to spend as little time as possible in the store, I plan my menus for a 2 week period, and use the online store directory to find which isle things are located in. I don’t necessarily save money though, because things may be out of stock so I grab something similar, and I don’t always want to spend time comparing different brands. Does make for a speedy trip though.

    Reply
  3. Robyn says:

    Last year an Aldi market opened up a mile from my house. It is my favorite place to shop. It only has four aisles and reminds me of the markets I used to visit as a child. They have great prices on staples like produce, bread, milk, cheese, eggs, and canned goods, like 24 oz. salsa for $1.18. Parking is easy and close, and I am in and out in 15 minutes or less.

    Reply
  4. Katie French says:

    Thanks for the great online shopping pitfalls.

    Though it doesn’t thwart all of the pitfalls of temptation, I have found free curbside pickup to be really helpful. For me, If I can avoid going into the store, that’s half of the battle won.

    Also, for some reason, it’s easier for me to firmly commit to a budget and just mercilessly delete from the cart till that magic number is reached before completing my purchase. It really helps me prioritize.

    Reply
  5. Belle Mieloch says:

    If the Spaghetti sauce was on sale I would have bought 4. Knowing by the time it was on sale again I would need more.since I make my own for a lot less money. I buy I bulk when a good sale is on. Goes on the shelf and I have saved so much this way, I rarely buy pop up items unless it is something I can use and is in my budget. I use Sams and my local grocery store know the store and their sales. Make from scratch as much as I can.Belle

    Reply
  6. Cathy Shouse says:

    These are good but I was thinking this might relate to the psychology of online buying during a pandemic. Asking for a friend. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Richard says:

    It took me a while to realize I should not have taken my wife to the grocery store with me. I have almost always used a shopping list and stuck to it. She passed away over six years ago after 56 years of marriage, yet last week I found something in the pantry that had never been opened that she placed in the cart. I rarely had a problem with the children asking for products not on the list, I took them with me most of the time since I worked the night shift and my wife the day shift.

    Reply
  8. Betty Thomas says:

    Thanks for being the detective we need to help us navigate the mysteries of the shopping world. I am fairly good at ignoring supposed big sales that really aren’t and figuring out that I can buy one item and not 3 for the deal. But when you brought out the Costco ploy of placing items within the first few feet of the door it hit me like a lightening bolt! I always linger there and and walk away with something from that area on a regular basis. I am now armed with the facts to get me inside the store instead of shopping at the door! I think being aware is our biggest weapon in the fight for saving our hard earned money.

    Reply
    • marcia west says:

      Costco, large as it is, doesn’t post ANY indicators on its aisles as to the items stacked there! You “have” to walk up and down each aisle until you FIND your desired item. Even with a list and budgeted money – the exposure is so tempting!
      And then there’s the free samples, center arena of “on sale” or most “popular” items? Sheesh! It’s a jungle in there!

      Reply
  9. Teacher Mom says:

    The sales here (New York) do often require the purchase of multiple items to get the sale price. Be careful – it will specify in the ad and on the store shelf tag. It varies so you really have to pay attention. Our Walgreens runs similar sales. So in your example, the spaghetti sauce might normally be $2.49 a jar, and it’s only $2 per jar if you buy 3 jars. If you buy 1, it’s the regular price.

    Reply
    • Lisa C says:

      Same here. In the small print it will say, must buy (said) quantity or price is higher. What a game! And now we have one-way isles which makes you pass everything in the store on your non-beeline trip to get just that one needed item. And some stores don’t take cash anymore. Crazy. So, yes, being aware is your best friend. Thanks Mary!

      Reply

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