How Stores Get You to Spend

Retailers work hard to put the moves on your money. Here, 10 of their slick tricks you'll never fall for again. 

Ever stop off at the store for one or two items, only to leave with one or two bulging shopping bags? That's no coincidence. So to help you strengthen your shopping willpower, we've blown the cover on common marketing tactics used in supermarkets, department stores, and more. Here, 10 free ways to outsmart the experts who've been paid millions to get you to spend more.

Give yourself a time limit.

No, seriously. Just decide in advance roughly how long it should take you to buy the things you need, then stick to your schedule. Why this is key: The average consumer spends more than $2 every minute she's in the grocery store, according to the Food Marketing Institute. So it's no wonder that many stores use clever devices such as pleasant lighting, attractive decor, tasty food samples, and music--whether relaxing, soothing tunes or energizing, make-you-wanna-dance ditties--to encourage you to linger. Well, don't get sucked in! Give yourself a set amount of time to accomplish your list, and then head for the checkout as soon as you're finished, before that little "something extra" catches your eye.

If you need only a few items, grab a basket instead of a cart.

There's a reason why shopping carts are bigger than ever: "A large cart gives you the perception that you don't have that many things in it, and makes you feel that you can buy more," says shopping scientist Paco Underhill, author of Call of the Mall. A small handheld basket, by contrast, helps you stick to your short list because when it starts to get heavy, you think, Okay, I'm done.

Don't get sidetracked.

Have you ever noticed that you have to wend your way past enticing displays of baked goods and fresh flowers to get to the bread and milk? "Marketers know that the more stuff you see, the more you are likely to buy," points out David Urban, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Arm yourself with a shopping list--organized by the supermarket's layout, if possible--to help you stay focused on the task at hand.

Buy chips in the snack aisle, shampoo in the personal-care aisle, etc.

Food retailers and other stores create the illusion of a sale by displaying a product at the end of an aisle--called an "end cap"--and marking it with a brightly colored sign that says, for instance, "Low Price!" "Super Buy!" or "Applesauce: $1.39!" Research shows that if retailers stick a sign next to an item, sales increase significantly--even when the price isn't reduced at all. Don't buy into it. "Most people assume they're getting a low price on an item when a store calls attention to it, but that's not always the case," says Elaine Notarantonio, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at Bryant University, in Smithfield, RI. Look at the displays to see what's being featured, but make your final selections in areas where similar products are shown together so you can compare and be sure you're getting the best deal.

Don't assume bulk = bargain. 

The huge packages sold at warehouse clubs and some supermarkets and superstores aren't always the best values. "Some products cost less per unit in smaller sizes, especially if you shop the sales and use coupons," says Notarantonio. Check the unit price on the shelves, and compare to smaller sizes. Also, consider how much you can realistically use before an item spoils or expires. A five-pound bag of apples on sale for $3.99, for example, is no bargain if the fruit goes bad before you
can eat it.

In department stores, work your way from the back of the floor forward. 

"Studies show that consumers are attracted to the first items they see, so retailers place merchandise with the highest profit margins near the front of the store," says Notarantonio. Ignore those up-front racks and tables laden with expensive stuff and go to the back of the store first,
which is where you'll likely find merchandise with the lowest profit margins, as well as clearance items marked down by as much as 70 percent. If you tune out the pricey, featured merchandise when you first walk in, you might just decide to pass it up altogether.

Focus on the fit, not the size. 

Clothing manufacturers sometimes use a tactic called "vanity sizing"--labeling clothes a size smaller than what they actually are. "The idea that you've lost a dress size makes you want to buy that skirt," says Underhill. But, c'mon, if you dropped a size, you'd know it! So don't buy an article of clothing unless it looks and feels great on you and you need it.

If you need the entire outfit buy it--but if you don't, don't. 

Retailers try to capitalize on what's called the "contrast effect" by displaying less-expensive accessories next to higher-priced items (for instance, they'll set out scarves with coats). "The idea is that after spending $300 on a suit, you won't mind spending $50 on a blouse to go with it," says Notarantonio. Look through your closet before you shop so you know what you need--and won't get snookered into an impulse purchase.

Look high and low. 

The most profitable name brands are usually placed at eye level because that's where they're most likely to, well, catch your eye. In fact, manufacturers often pay a premium for this prime shelf space. For the best values, check out the private-label and lesser-known brands on the very top and bottom shelves, says John Stanton, Ph.D., a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Skip the bells and whistles. 

To appeal to status-conscious consumers, some manufacturers use a strategy called "versioning": They create different versions of a product by adding features and using names like "basic," "deluxe," and "premium plus" (a tactic often used with appliances, electronics, and software). "Many people will spend extra to feel they're getting the best," says Urban. So read the label, and if a feature sounds good in writing but you have no idea what it does (hyper-threading computer
technology--huh?), pass it up. Often the "basic" version will do just fine.

Before You Buy Online, Read This 

Internet retailers have their own web of tricks to turn browsers into buyers. To shop wisely:

* Avoid tempting "shopping cart" suggestions, such as "People who bought this DVD also bought…" The reason: "Online retailers took at what you're buying and offer products to go along with it," says Deborah Moscardelli, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at Central Michigan University. Pointing out what other customers purchased also has a powerful psychological effect, she adds; this ploy makes you think, Well, if other people got X and Y, so should I.

* To find the deals, scroll to the bottom of a page, or click on the "clearance" or "sale" tab. Like traditional retailers, online stores often place the high-profit merchandise where it's easy to spot, usually at the top of the first page on the site.

* Think twice before you take advantage of a "free" offer--as in, free shipping if you spend more than, say, $75, or a free gift card with a $125 purchase. "It's easy to think that you should increase your order--but be careful, because you may end up spending an extra $50 to save $10," Moscardelli says.

* Compare prices at other online retailers to make sure you're getting the best deal. Some Internet stores keep track of your buying patterns and may actually charge higher prices to previous customers. And you can't always believe the flashing banners or neon pop-ups that say,
"Lowest Price Anywhere!" So do your own research at price-comparison shopping websites such or