A woman sitting at a table

Your Consumer Behavior is Keeping You Broke

Do you know what I love? Walking into my supermarket the day after Thanksgiving and hearing the best Christmas music ever. Yeah! And if I wasn’t in the mood to bake Christmas cookies before I got there, just hearing that lovely music changes everything. Right there, that proves I am a quintessential, typical, impulsive consumer. That retailer’s got my number.


A woman sitting at a table


While I don’t want to stop loving music (I swoon to the Beach Boys during the summer months because this store has an uncanny way of knowing what I like) what I have changed is the way I hear it while loading up on groceries. They’re doing this on purpose, by design because retailers have irrefutable evidence that the right music can result in increased sales of targeted products to impulse buyers.

The Journal of Scientific Research suggests that loud music gets people to move through a store more quickly where slower and quieter music makes them stay longer and spend more money. Classical music at a restaurant makes people buy more than does pop music or no music at all. Music is like tasty bait retailers purposely thread onto the end of a sharp hook.

Playing the “right” music isn’t all that retailers do to manipulate us into dropping more money than we’d ever intended to spend before walking in their stores. Retailers manipulate all of our senses so we will spend more money.

Subtle, psychological cues are worth paying attention to when you’re shopping. If you know about them, you can take steps to avoid their effects.


There are lots of cues in a store that have a big impact on what we decide to buy. Color is one of them. Retailers use color on the walls, the floor and display tables to their advantage. Red, for example, is always associated with sales because it inspires people to take action. Red is stimulating.

One study concluded that waitresses who wear red get bigger tips. Red even makes us spend more online. Start noticing how retailers use red in ads, especially. By simply noticing, you reduce the likelihood that retailer will be able to manipulate your spending decision.


Think you’re the only one who detected that amazingly subtle yet delicious scent as you strolled in? Richard Axel and Linda Buck won a Nobel Prize for their work in understanding our olfactory system, which allows us to identify and categorize 10,000 scents, all of which can trigger powerful nostalgia-laced memories. No wonder a specific fragrance reminds you of your grandmother or the smell of pine trees floods your mind with childhood camp experiences. Scents can subconsciously affect the way we spend. Theaters, bakeries, and countless other retailers know this and capitalize on it big time.


Many retailers create “rest areas” where they know you will be prompted to stop and just look around. It might be at the checkout or in an area that just screams cozy place to stop and look around. Once they have that nailed, they load up the area with impulse buys—small thing, lovely things they know you won’t resist. Mostly they’ll put them at eye level to aid you in your sweet moment of rest.

Sneaky tricks

We’ve come to expect that a sale comes with a sign. Most of the time it is a red sign with big black numbers and smaller words that don’t really matter. We’ve seen it so much, now we are like Pavlov’s dogs. We react without thinking about it. And what if the word “Sale!” is replaced by “Hot!” or “Bargain!”? We don’t notice. We grab and go because it’s gotta’ be a great bargain. Retailers capitalize on what they’ve learned from Dr. Pavlov.


This one is so crazy, I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. Why is it that humans stop and more thoughtfully consider the price when it ends in with .00,  but if it ends in .99 or .95, somehow our brains shut down, automatically register it as a good price? Why, oh why? I don’t know, but the truth is that it does. It’s called “left-digit effect.”

Subtracting 1 cent from a round price, such as $9.00, not only changes the rightmost digit but also decreases the left-most digit of the price (e.g., $8.99). If we’re not totally aware of what’s going on, we see the item as $8. Retailers count on the “just below price” all the time because they know we’ll fall for it. All the time.

Beat ‘em

The best way to win when we go up against retailers—which of course we do every day—is to be aware. Figure it out. Stop being a mindless, impulsive, broke consumer. Go in with a plan, a list, cash, and a strong mind. Make a note of the sounds and smells. Look at the pricing structure. Do a mental, “Ah-ha! I know why you’re doing that!” when you see prices ending with .95 or .99. Then take control of yourself. Don’t give in to those silly ploys. Resist the impulse displays, get what you need, and then get out of there!

That’s the way to nibble at the bait without getting hooked and reeled in.

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2 replies
  1. Paul says:

    I hate Christmas. I hate the hoopla that goes with it. The urge, nay the DeMaNd to spend, spend, spend. Christmas music literally makes me want to puke.

    And I say that as a practicing Christian… because Christmas is not Christian at all, it is a co-opted Pagan rite. There is absolutely nothing Christian about Christmas. Especially the belief that we “must” buy presents for all and sundry.

    And for those that disagree I say to you, where in the Bible does it say to celebrate the birth of Christ? Hint: it doesn’t.

    Has absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Christ. December? Remember the shepherds were out in the fields with their sheep. Yet in December it snows, so they would have had their flocks in barns or stables. So much for consumerist rituals. We should love our family and friends 365 days a year and not have to go deeply in financial hock to (cough, cough) prove it.

    Thus endeth the lesson.

  2. PatriotPeg says:

    i was taught by my mom, when i saw .99, i should round up the number to the left of the decimal. easy-peasy. my friend, automatically looks at $9.99 as $9.00. thanx for this piece of info. so many people disregard the numbers to the right of the decimal.


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