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31 Almost Invisible Ways Stores Trick You Into Spending More

Updated: Feb. 24, 2023

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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They hook you with loyalty cards

Know you’re being tracked. If you use a store loyalty card, your buying habits are being recorded and often used to lure you to buy more. According to the New York Times, retailers these days are successfully tricking consumers into spending more by determining their spending “sweet spot,” based on previous purchases. So three 12-packs of Pepsi are marked at $12.99 at Stop & Shop because the grocer knows you’ll buy at that price, even if you don’t need it.

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They assault you with color

Beware holiday shopping—the color red may prime you to splurge, says psychology professor Kit Yarrow. Red stimulates and energizes the brain, she explains, noting that waitresses who wear red uniforms receive 14 to 26 percent higher tips than those in different colored outfits. Red is also a biological response to behavior—blushing, anger, embarrassment.

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They use crowds to their advantage

Studies show that most consumers buy more when the store is crowded because they subconsciously want to be part of the group. Mondays and Tuesdays are generally the best days to shop. Whatever you do, avoid shopping on weekends.

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They hook you with bogus coupons

Coupons may appear to offer savings but are actually just advertisements—sometimes for the priciest option available. A 2003 NYU shopping study found that customers with coupons ended up spending an average of $2.28 for an item while those without coupons opted for cheaper products averaging $2.07. As the study notes, “When coupons are available for expensive products, [shoppers’] likelihood of purchasing the expensive product increases.”

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They bait you with treats

There’s no such thing as free chocolate. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, shoppers expressed a greater desire in buying luxury products like fancy watches, laptops, or designer clothing immediately after consuming a single free Lindt chocolate truffle. Unsurprisingly, most Lindt stores immediately offer a free sample of their wares to everyone who walks in. Here are supermarket shopping secrets from America’s top grocery stores.

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They sneakily reduce portions

Beware of new packaging. Check the ounces on that newly packaged bottle of your shampoo, and you may find you’re paying the same for less, says Poundstone. One way manufacturers hide this? A big dimple in the bottom of the container

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They charm you with service

Don’t try on clothes you don’t need. A shopper who stops to chat with a store employee and tries something on is twice as likely to buy as a shopper who does neither, Underhill says. Generally, The more you interact with a salesperson, the likelier you are to buy something; you don’t want to let someone down who has helped you.

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They tempt you with comfort

You’ve surely noticed that most apparel and housewares stores punctuate their main aisle with seats for weary customers (cough cough, husbands). What you might not notice is that these seats are often right next to displays of products that the store wants to unload, says Johan Stenebo, author of the book The Truth About Ikea. “Retailers call this the hot-hot-hot spot for inventory that’s not shifting,” he says. Think twice before you buy these things online.

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They mirror your body language

Humans crave understanding. Not surprisingly, numerous studies have shown that salespeople who mimic the posture and body language of their customers are more likely to make larger sales—but physical contact can tip the scales even further. Research shows that physical contact (especially from a woman) can increase a person’s sense of security and therefore their risk-taking behavior.

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They charge more for less—because you’re too lazy to care

You can expect to pay a premium if you’re a lazy shopper. From Dairy Queen to Starbucks, many food retailers have begun selling mini-size treats at prices that hardly make them a good value, notes USA Today. They know that many people would rather be seen as virtuous—eating fewer calories than a normal portion contains—than thrifty and that they’re willing to spend more if they don’t have to actually dole out those portions themselves.

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They ‘bundle’ services needlessly

Beware “bundled” services. Phone companies lump everything together for a single price—text, talk, web service—because they figure you won’t read the fine print and realize you’re paying more than you should for each, Poundstone says.

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They use false comparisons

Watch out for bogus “bargains.” If a retailer displays a cut-rate model that’s clearly inferior to the one he wants you to buy, he’s trying to influence you, says Poundstone. These are the clear signs your shopping is out of control. 

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They use urgent language

Understand how certain phrases are used by retailers. “For a limited time only” creates a sense of urgency, Yale marketing professor Ravi Dhar tells Mainstreet.com. Similarly, these are the 100 most powerful marketing words.

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They over-sell their deals

Even though they mean exactly the same thing, the come-on “Buy one, get one 50 percent off” incites more people to buy than signs that read simply, “25 percent off everything,” says retail analyst Amy Noblin.

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They set false limits

See per-customer limits for what they are: a ploy. As Vicki Morwitz of New York University’s Stern School of Business explains, “[People] think, ‘Oh, this is scarce, I should buy this,’ ” when it’s probably not.

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They put the brightest products up front

Bright colors put you in a good mood and inspire you to buy more, says Phil Lempert, grocery industry expert and editor of Supermarketguru.com. That’s why you should start shopping in the middle of the store, with its bland boxes and cans.

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They play to your insecurities

According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, the attractiveness of a cashier can greatly affect how much a shopper purchases. When faced with attractive employees of either sex, participating shoppers felt more conscious about themselves and were less likely to buy personal care items—or anything at all. Shoppers who bought from plain-looking cashiers spent more. Online shopping, meanwhile, removes this anxiety altogether, which is yet another reason behind its constant growth.

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They set a free-shipping minimum

Quick shipping can run an order up by double digits, so any free shipping offer must be a good deal, right? Wrong. Many companies enforce a minimum order cost for free shipping to kick in ($49 for Amazon, and often more for other vendors), penalizing people buying just one or two little things. This happens more often than you might expect. “I catch myself looking for more items to qualify all the time,” says Brent Shelton, spokesman for deal site FatWallet. “I tell myself, ‘There’s got to be something that I need.’” Know in your heart: there isn’t.

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They send you through a maze

Aisle one is produce, aisle two is butter, and aisle three is… diapers? Who even designed this store? A retail mastermind, it turns out; according to marketing experts, when shoppers lose focus they are more inclined to make impulse purchases. Per one study, when customers were interrupted during a risky decision (say, deciding whether to buy a $20 bag of organic coffee) they became more likely to spend after the distraction ended, as their previous consideration of the item gave it a false sense of familiarity, reducing the mental risk of buying it.

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They use expensive decoys

Yes, $175 sounds expensive—but not so bad compared to $475, right? Knowing that your brain will automatically make this false comparison when given two disparate numbers, many restaurant menus put the most expensive item at the top of the menu, while many clothing stores will pair an insanely pricey garment next to a relatively cheap one in hopes of filing away your price sensitivity. Don’t let the “relatively” cheap price tag cloud your judgment; $175 is still $175. These are other savvy shopping tips you’ll wish you knew all along.

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istock/Martin Dimitrov

They become your default

According to Dan Ariely in Wired, most shoppers would rather buy from a site that has your address and credit card information on file than at one where you’d have to enter this information—even if it means paying more. Sites like Amazon understand this and save your credit card information after even a single purchase, making it that much easier to make the next one. A poll from creditcards.com found that 94 million Americans store their credit card information online. Next, check out the best-ever money tips from the world’s most successful people.

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest