Tips to Outsmart Retailers’ Clever Tricks

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 mood lighting and cushy 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, and his company, Envirosell, to follow thousands of shoppers a year in person and on video, 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,” says Underhill, “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 ways you can outsmart those tricky retailers.

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.

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. 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. 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.


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  • Roberta

    I find the best way to save money shopping is to leave hubby and the kids at home. It is much easier to stay to your list when other people aren’t trying to add things to it.

    • DianaB

      That is no kidding, or complaining because you are comparing products and prices and taking way too long to get this shopping done.

      • SuperByteMan

        Just remember all those times you went to the museum and wanted to read every word, but your kids are pulling you to the next display. Thanks, DianaB, for bringing back a memory. Dad did it to us, I did it to others.

        But just like if you want to do a museum your full attention, you leave the family behind (well, not a good example), if you want to give your shopping your full attention, leave the kids behind, until they’re old enough to help you keep to a list, in which case you can give them the easy things to find while you concentrate on the other items.

  • DianaB

    Walmart is hardly cushy and colorful. Of course, milk is in the back. All the refrigeration systems are located on the outer walls of stores. I still wonder whose bright idea it was to freeze out the shoppers and leave all the refrigeration cases open and let all that cold air seep into the store. Signage does try to get you to buy more product. Sometimes you have to buy 3 to get the ‘sale’ price. If you buy them singly, they cost more. You have to actually read. Yes, coffee and mayo have become a gyp, along with a lot of other items. Prices go up, sizes go down. Have yet to understand the sense in retro-fitting their manufacturing plants to produce a smaller product. That must cost hundreds of thousands of dollars which is passed along to us in higher prices for less product. And, yes, shop with a list. Get in and get out. Sometimes, however, browsing is simply interesting. You can find new products, cannot find the old ones because some dufus department manager decided not to stock it any longer or no one bothers to reorder the product and the space gets filled up with something else and they are not smart enough or bother to even notice. Well, I notice. I am the consumer and I don’t even work there. I find myself merchandising stuff on the shelves because it is in the wrong spot. Too bad the employees don’t do that. So you spend an inordinate amount of time looking for something that no longer exists and hope maybe it will next trip :))

  • Q

    There isn’t a shortage of humans w/ a continuing the need to eat; so I don’t know why they aren’t making enough money off the items we ‘have’ to buy. Same w/ car mechanics, plenty of cars needing repairs so why try to sell something not broken? Hmmm…

  • davistrain

    One thing I notice about stores is the music–as a lifelong music fan and record collector whose first “day job” was in the local music store, there’s no such thing as background music, I’ve noticed that Trader Joe’s has different genres or time periods from day to day, although the songs are usually up-tempo, presumably to put shoppers in a good mood. One day the sound system at a nearby TJ’s just about had me dancing in the aisles. I commented on this to the checker and she said, “If we weren’t so busy, I’d join you.” Then there’s Orchard Supply Hardware, a California building-supply chain that’s now part of Lowe’s. I was in the local OSH and it was like their music source had been rummaging through my “golden oldies” stash of “45s” and compilation CDs. Maybe their target public is old-time Rock & Roll fans like me.