4 Ways Stores Trick Us Into Impulse Buys (And How to Resist)

Paco Underhill's Why We Buy is the seminal book of retail psychology. I first read it when I was fresh out of business school and newly employed by Toys 'R Us as we worked on revamping the brand and the physical stores. It made me realize all of the tools that retailers use to their advantage to entice customers. Because over half of purchases in the U.S. are unplanned, retailers are clearly succeeding with the book's strategies. (See also: How Retailers Manipulate You Into Spending)

But as consumers, we can also use Mr. Underhill's insights to our advantage. Here are four tricks of the retail trade and how to avoid falling prey to them.

1. Pricing

Everyone loves to get a good deal. Retailers often inflate their regular prices so that they can afford to give large discounts without their profits taking a hit. Remember, retail prices are often hundreds of times higher than the cost of the goods to the retailer.

Retailers give BOGOs (buy one, get one free offers) and free items or free shipping with a minimum purchase amount. These pricing tactics are meant to encourage you to buy more than you need and to quickly move merchandise that isn't selling well so that the retailer can quickly turnover inventory. (See also: Party Like It's $19.99: The Psychology of Pricing)

How to Resist

Make a list and stick to it. It's also important to set a spending limit either for a full shopping trip or for a particular item you want to buy. That limit is the dollar value that you place on the items rather than the dollar value that the retailer wants you to put on the items. If you are worried that you can't control your spending limit with a credit card, then resolve to only use cash or a debit card to ensure you don't exceed the limit you set prior to shopping.

2. Customer Experience

Retailers know that if they give their customers a stellar shopping experience, customers are more likely to spend additional time in the store, become repeat shoppers, and spread the word to their friends, family, and social media followers. An excellent experience should be expected when you spend your hard-earned dollars; just make sure your desire for a great experience works for you and not against you.

Strong air conditioning in the sticky summer months, pleasing music, appealing lighting, free samples, and even scent are all tactics employed by retailers to alter your mood. Many stores also like to boast that you can get everything you need under one roof rather than making trips to multiple stores. This convenience factor is another facet of customer experience that retailers use to put you in the buying spirit.

How to Resist

Place your desired items in your cart or carry them around the store for a few minutes. Research shows that the dopamine rush we experience from retail therapy only lasts for a few minutes. Once that rush wears off, we are better able to understand if we really value the items we are about to purchase. Also, never shop while you are hungry or when you are experiencing any emotional distress. Emotional and physical distress will cloud your judgement when making purchases.

3. Store Design

Store design is perhaps the most important asset that retailers leverage to encourage purchasing. Endcaps (the shelving units on the two ends of an aisle) with organized, in-demand items, wide and comfortable aisles with complementary items grouped together or adjacent to one another, well-stocked checkout lines, and attractive specialty boutiques like those often found in the cosmetic and personal care sections of a store, encourage us to actively browse and discover items. Prime real estate on the shelves lives at eye level, and remember items aimed at children are purposely placed at their eye levels, too.

How to Resist

Review your cart before you head to the checkout to make sure you really need or want what you've picked up at the price that it fits your budget. Make sure to take a look at home in your closets and cabinets before heading to the store to avoid buying duplicate or similar items. To combat the eye level issue, take a step back from the shelves so that you can take in the full landscape of comparable products. The sale priced and generic brands are rarely if ever placed at eye level because they tend to be cheaper than the name brands.

4. Urgency

Beware of phrases such as "limited-time offer" or "only while supplies last." Retailers use this kind of language to make customers feel like they have to grab these products now, or they will miss their chance to get them. Some retailers may go so far as to hold back some of their stock to make it look like the item is flying off the shelf. This is the "keeping up with Joneses" trick used against you.

How to Resist

Comparison shopping is now easier than ever thanks to high-speed Wi-Fi connections and apps created for just this purpose. Before buying any item with a limited-time offer, do a quick comparison with other retailers to make sure you're truly getting a deal. PriceGrabber is one of my favorite price comparison apps. It enables you to scan items right at the shelf and set up alerts to notify you when a desired items hits the price you want to pay.

Retailers don't employ these tactics because they want to put one over on you. They're running a business and that means they have to use the tools they have to be profitable, keep the doors open, and continue employing their staff. However, it's up to you to understand the tools they're using so that you can make informed choices that align with your values and budget. There is so much more to shopping (and selling!) than meets the eye. Your best defense is awareness.

Have you ever been taken in by any of these — or other — retailer tricks? Please share in comments.

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