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31 Almost Invisible Ways Stores Trick You Into Spending More

Every sight, smell, sound, and touch in a retail environment is engineered for one purpose: to get you to spend more. Here are all the devious, psychological ways stores manipulate you—and how you can avoid them.


They end things in '.99'

Don’t fall for prices ending in 9, 99, or 95. These so-called charm prices make us think they reflect good deals, says William Poundstone, author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It). We also tend to round these prices down, reading a price like $5.99 as $5, a phenomenon known as the left-digit effect. Ninety-nine-cent stores are a notorious ripoff for this very reason; they have a profit margin twice that of Walmart, Poundstone reveals. Here are the signs that a shopping site is fake—and about to steal your money.

istock/Jodi Jacobson

They break you in with cheap items

It’s no coincidence that the first thing you see in most stores is a bargain bag of candy or half-priced socks. In retail, these cheap little impulse buys are called “open-the-wallet” items and are designed to break a psychological anti-spending barrier when you enter a store. “Americans are cautious,” says retail consultant Jeff Green; a cheap addition to the shopping cart right away gives consumers that extra little push they need to spend more money later on.

istock/ blew_i

They entice you with smell

When you walk into a grocery store, you smell bread baking or rotisserie chicken roasting in the deli area because retailers know those smells get your salivary glands working. When you’re salivating, you’re a much less disciplined shopper, says Paco Underhill, author of What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping. And it’s not just true for food retailers:  Working with an appliance store, researcher Martin Lindstrom pumped in the smell of an apple pie, and the sales of ovens and fridges went up 23 percent.


They slow you with music

Many stores play music with a rhythm that’s much slower than the average heartbeat, which makes you spend more time in the store—and buy 29 percent more, according to Lindstrom. These are the money mistakes you need to avoid. 


They let you handle the merchandise

According to a recent study, customers who were physically allowed to see and touch merchandise like mugs, DVDs, and snacks were willing to pay 43 percent more than those who only saw them in photographs or described in text. Other research confirms the more time you spend handling a product, the more likely you are to pay for it. It’s little wonder why Apple stores line their tables with demo phones and computers, or why car salesmen are happy to offer a test drive.

istock/Cathy Yeulet

They assume you won’t check unit prices

When a grocery store offers a “10 for 10” deal, volume takes off, even if the promotion raises the price of something. Stores may take an 89-cent can of tuna and mark it “ten for $10,” 
and instead of buying six cans for 89 cents, people will buy ten for $10, says former supermarket executive Jeff Weidauer. Here are more top secrets supermarkets won't tell you.


They delay the cost, but not the payoff

When you make an iTunes or Apple App Store purchase, you don’t get a receipt right away. This reduces what economists call “that pain of paying.” You get your purchase immediately, but you’re not reminded of what you paid until later—making you more likely to keep buying. Credit cards are especially dangerous for this same reason.


They hide the dollar signs

Next time you’re out to eat, note the missing dollar signs. According to a Cornell University study, diners spent much less when menus used the word dollars or the dollar sign than when only numerals were used to indicate price. Not seeing this physical reminder of your vanishing money creates a cognitive distance in your head that makes it easier to focus on the reward, without worrying about the cost.


They guide you with carts and baskets

Nature abhors a vacuum, and a shopper abhors an empty cart. “Baskets induce people to buy more,” says Underhill, and carts are even more tempting to fill with impulse purchases. In one grocery store study, retailers doubled the size of their carts to see if customers bought more. They did: 19 percent more, to be exact. Always hand-carry your purchases if you can. Just like shopping carts, people eat more if they have a larger plate. Here are the secret store policies that could save you money.


They dumb down your 'savings'

When the discount is easy to calculate, Poundstone says, we think it’s a better bargain. Thus “Originally $20, now $15” works better than “Originally $20, now $13.97.” You’ll be more tempted to go with the former, even though the latter saves you more.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest