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. 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.
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.
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.
Take note of a store’s colors or website, then smile knowingly. Just being aware of them helps you take control.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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