7 tricks retailers use to get you to spend more

Steer clear of enticing displays, friendly salespeople and special 'deals'


It happens all the time. When shopping for a specific item on your list, you end up leaving the store with more items in your cart than you expected and much less in your wallet.

Are you doomed to repeat this behavior over and over again?.

When the consequences of blowing your budget every time you shop can be severe, why do you frequently spend more than you intend? Blame behind the scenes magic. Experts pull back the marketing curtain to expose eight tricks of the trade. Once you're aware of them, the spell just may be broken for good.

7 tricks retailers use to get you to spend more

1. Deals so amazing you can't afford not to overspend. You didn't plan on buying two lipsticks, but it just makes sound financial sense if the first is full price and the next is free or half off.

Or does it? That deal is usually not as fantastic as it appears on the surface. In a BOGO ("buy one get one" free in marketing lingo) arrangement, the store typically inflates the cost of the initial item. So while it may be cheaper if you bought both individually, half price it's not.

A little research often proves such inflation to be true, says Polly Bauer, former CEO of HSN Credit Corporation and co-author of "The Plastic Effect: How Urban Legends Influence the Use and Misuse of Credit Cards." "You can sometimes check online to see what the price of something was a year ago. It may be $4.29 today, but was $1.99 last year."

Bauer recommends shoppers ask themselves one question when analyzing a BOGO offer: "Would I buy it without the deal?" If the answer is no, you could probably do without it.

2. Your bed, but better. Stores showcasing fantasy versions of what you already have can trigger a powerful psychological response.

"Emotion is a key fuel in the cycle of buying, credit and debt," says Bauer. "Retailers hire experts in consumer behavior, merchandising displays and advertising to appeal to your emotions and boost their sales."

Always consider the overall look and coordination of displays, especially when you're in the furniture department or watching a home shopping show. Sets resemble idealized interpretations of "real" rooms, only with a mass of pillows, billowy window treatments and sumptuous rugs that you probably don't own -- yet. Your intention may be to go in for a simple set of sheets, but you'll leave with supplies for an entire bedroom makeover if you succumb to temptation.

The more a salesperson works to help you, the longer they spend with you, and if they give you anything (water, coffee, a coupon) the more you will feel obliged to buy something in return.

-- Margaret J. King
The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis

3. "Look here, not there!" signs. Where do your eyes land when you're in the store? To the most gaze-catching messages, of course. The brighter and more prominent they are, the more they'll divert your attention from the single pair of socks on your list.

"There are lots of retail strategies to keep people shopping and, perhaps, buy more products," says Roger Dooley, a columnist at and author of "Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing." "One advantage of the retail environment is that you can appeal to all of the customer's senses, something you can't do on TV, radio or the Internet." 

That includes using brightly colored sale signage on the shelves, says Dooley. "These have been shown to engage the brains of customers simply by being visible, regardless of the actual savings they offer."

In a sea of neutrals, anything neon is a dead giveaway for, 'Buy this, not (or in addition to) that.' While shopping, scan the racks for anything posted in dazzling orange or yellow. There's persuasion on that paper.

4. Camaraderie and compliments. Sales can be a perfected art form and some professionals are particularly skilled. Their goal is to ring the highest receipt. Achieving it often begins with flattery and personal questions.

According to Bob Phibbs, aka "The Retail Doctor," one technique is called "window of contact." A warm greeting turns into a conversation about something you have in common. Perhaps you have the same name as the salesperson's sister (what a coincidence!). Or she loves your necklace, an indication that you share similar fashion taste. Next thing you know, you're adding her suggestions to your credit card. After all, she "gets" you. More, you wouldn't want to hurt her feelings by rejecting her recommendations.

"As social beings, humans are primed for reciprocity," says Margaret J. King, director of The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, a think tank that studies human behavior and decision making.. "We tend to respond to a positive action with another positive action. The more a salesperson works to help you, the longer they spend with you, and if they give you anything (water, coffee, a coupon) the more you will feel obliged to buy something in return." The antidote, therefore, is easy and effective. Limit contact time and avoid chitchat.

5. What's that nibbling at your total? According to Vishal Srivastava, founder of Trainege, a company that helps businesses maximize sales, many salespeople and cashiers are instructed to employ the "nibbling" technique to up-sell at checkout.

"Nibbling" occurs when both the customer and the person ringing up the sale believe they have the deal they wanted and are unlikely to walk away, explains Srivastava. Then, a less pricey item is presented as a valuable add-on. For example, right as you're about to swipe your card for $79 running shoes, the cashier extols the virtue of the odor elimination powder at the counter. Ka-ching! Another $6.75 is added to your bill.

Take back control of your purchases by keeping to a shopping list and becoming aware of these sales tactics and your emotional spending habits.

-- Polly Bauer
former CEO and co-author, "The Plastic Effect"

"McDonald's is really good at it, but so are most retailers," says Srivastava. "Because the asking price for upsizing the order is seemingly low, a large number of buyers tend to fall for it even though they don't really need it."

Since too much nibbling can take a major bite out of your budget, become comfortable with two simple yet highly effective words: no thanks.

6.  Supermarket switches.  There are plenty of tricks to spot while food shopping, too, says grocery and supermarket trends expert Teri Gault, CEO of

The flier you get in the mail or when you walk in to the store showing all those sales items? It's a pitch for both real and nonexistent discounts. "Many items are not even on sale, just advertised in the supermarket circular," says Gault, who says that just seeing them listed with genuine bargains get shoppers to look for and then buy them.

Loss leaders -- products so affordable that the store loses money selling them -- are used to lure you in to purchase more or other items. "Strawberries, for example, may be in the biggest display by door, but it may be the more expensive strawberries," says Gault, and not those on sale.

So where are they? Look long and hard. "Sometimes we find the loss leader as pictured in the ad in the back of the produce section in a smaller display."

7.  Where and how displays are displayed. Today, the entrance to many grocery stores resemble charming little stands straight out of the French countryside. Enticing, yes, but Gault suggests you bypass by the gourmet cart unless you happen to be throwing an overpriced hors d'oeuvres party: "Some of that cheese costs three times more than the exact same larger package in the dairy case."

And it's not just what's being displayed in the front of the store to be wary of, but what lies at the aisle ends. A store's "end-caps," in supermarket speak, is where highly profitable cross-marketing occurs.

"That may be something like everything you need to make s'mores," says Gault. "The graham crackers may be a great price, but the marshmallows, chocolate bars and metal skewers may be overpriced, and better deals for those items found in the aisle."

Be conscious of product placement and exotic arrangements. They can activate your imagination and salivary glands, then result in unnecessary splurges.

Most consumers fall for marketing manipulations from time to time, but to see how often it trips you up, Bauer suggests identifying five unintended, regrettable purchases you've made in the past 90 days. "Write down the emotions that led you to buy and the emotions you had after purchases," she says. "Do you see a pattern?"

The exercise isn't intended to make you feel bad, but to help you understand why it's so easy to overdo spending and charging. 

"Sales guerrillas are trained to know what drives emotional buying and how to tap into those emotions at a deep level," says Bauer. "You're also up against companies that spend billions of dollars and deploy many powerful techniques in an effort to attempt to influence your buying behavior. Take back control of your purchases by keeping to a shopping list and becoming aware of these sales tactics and your emotional spending habits."

See related: 5 reasons budgets fail -- and what to do about them, QA: Avis Cardella writes on overcoming shopping addiction

Updated: November 3, 2014

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