9 Times Choosing an Unpopular Color Will Save You Big

Color has a major impact on how, where, and what we spend our money on. A study revealed that 84.7% of shoppers think that color is the most important factor for choosing products. In a related study, the Institute for Color Research found that people make subconscious judgments about a person, an environment, or a product within 90 seconds of initial viewing, and between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.

Retailers and manufacturers use the psychology of color in a variety of ways to manipulate consumers. While there are many ways that choosing the wrong color can cost you big, once you understand the marketing psychology at play, you can use that information to save a lot of cash.

1. Hurdle and Save

A "hurdle" is a type of price discrimination that, in exchange for jumping over a figurative hurdle, rewards customers with a discount. Hurdles are a way that sellers maximize profits by ensuring that only the customers that are motivated by price, over all other factors, are rewarded with a discount.

Hurdles are different from sales, where all the customers receive the same discount. The problem with unilateral discounts (for sellers) is that the seller is often offering a discount to customers who are prepared to pay full price.

A common hurdle is a mail-in-rebate. Companies love rebate programs because it incentives buyers to purchase products on the assumption that they will get a lower price with a rebate. But just like with coupons and gift cards, manufacturers depend on "breakage," which is the fancy financial term for people not using their rebate and paying full price. Only those consumers who are organized and patient enough get the discount.

Get Over the Color Hurdle

Color is another very common hurdle. For example, here is the same baby Graco playpen from the same retailer, at different prices. The only difference between the $84.99 playpens and the $99.99 playpens are the colors. Design-oriented consumers, who pay as much as $15 more for their playpens, have a better opportunity to match the playpen with their nursery palette, while customers who are price-focused feel like they are getting a deal. The seller wins out big in this situation as it can now sell to a more price conscious buyer without alienating the buyer who will pay top dollar (and vice versa).

To save using color hurdles, shoppers should look closely at the description. Using the Target playpen description as an example, savvy shoppers will notice two things. First, the discounted price changes between page visits, so the black playpen that cost $74 yesterday might now cost $99.99. Two hours from now it might cost $84.99. Design conscious buyers might be able to score a deal by jumping over a hurdle that requires them to repeatedly return to the catalog to get a discount on their preferred color. Secondly, several of the colors are marked "Only at Target" which gives those colors an air of exclusivity. (Target-loyal customers can feel pleased that they got a special edition color by shopping at their preferred store and paying full price.)

However, what this description unintentionally hints at is that there might also be "only at Babies R Us" colors, "Internet only discounts" or "Walmart Exclusives," so shoppers who want a specific color might want to narrow their online Google search to something like "Black Graco Playpen" to suss out deals that match their budgets and their decors over an array of dealers.

2. Dress the Kid in Neutrals

By the early part of the 20th century retailers had figured out that if they market one color for boys and one color for girls, they could double their profits because parents would have to buy a whole new set of clothes and accessories if they had a boy and a girl, rather than just reusing gender neutral hand-me-downs. Interestingly, Major retailers like Marshall Field and Filene's initially recommended pink for boys and pastel blue for girls. (Red was considered a manly color and pink is a derivative of red. Light blue was considered prettier and more girlish, and in Christian circles, evoked images of the Virgin Mary).

At some point in the 1940's pink and blue switched genders as a result of market trends, but historian Jo B. Paoletti, who has extensively studied gendered baby clothing, says it could have gone either way.

The advent of better prenatal testing solidified the gendered marketing of children's toys and clothes. Now that parents can discover the sex of their progeny early on in their pregnancies, they have more time to shop for the future boy or girl. The more that sellers segment the baby market by gender, the more they can sell.

The pastel colors schemes for kids are nothing more than a way for sellers to maximize profits.

Parents can save a lot of money on toys and clothes by ignoring these arbitrary conventions and buying more gender neutral clothing and toys that can be shared between siblings of either gender.

3. Wed in Color

As with pink and blue baby clothes, the white wedding dress is a new tradition. Up until about 175 years ago, the average woman would get married in her best dress, and wealthy women would have a dress made in the fashionable color of the day, that they could wear after the wedding to other events. While she was not the first royal to be married in white, Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding gown when she wore all white to marry Prince Albert in 1840.

To her credit, Victoria didn't just wear white to show status, but to promote English arts and industry. She was frugal as well as politically smart. Victoria's dress was not only "locally sourced," but Victoria reused the Honiton lace flounce from her wedding dress Miss Haversham-style on other dresses until her Diamond Jubilee in 1896.

Channel Queen Victoria and choose a wedding gown that can be repurposed for multiple events. A colored gown is less likely to scream "wedding dress" even if it is incredibly ornate. If your heart is set on wearing white to your wedding, then steer clear of the wedding industrial complex by purchasing a white dress from a non-bridal store.

4. Wear White After Labor Day

Who says you can't wear white after Labor Day? Oh, I don't know. Henry James characters?

The Donald Trumps of the Gilded Age flaunted their wealth by wearing white during their summer vacations. White clothes were a status symbol because they signified that not only were you rich enough to have servants to wash your clothes, but you were also rich enough to bring servants with you on vacation to wash your play clothes. Summer vacation traditionally ended for the upper classes on Labor Day, and so did their summer casual wear. For turn-of-the-last-century society types, wearing white after Labor Day was akin to wearing a Hawaiian shirt to the office instead of a suit.

Flash forward 100 years later. With the advent of washing machines and modern detergents, it is now possible for everyone to wash their white clothes without the help of a valet. But, for retailers, this rule still stands, which is a windfall for consumers.

Shoppers take note: Labor Day — not Black Friday, not Boxing Day, not Cyber Monday — but Labor Day offers the best discounts on clothes for the year. Why? Because stores must restock their racks with seasonal fall apparel and make room for Christmas merchandise. In addition to steeply marking down summer clothing, retailers try and sell off all the merchandise that is still languishing in their storage dating back to January. This is true even for relatively season-free places like Los Angeles.

So go ahead and buy those white summer clothes at a steep discount and wear them proudly after Labor Day. It's called "Winter White" for a reason.

5. Dye It Black

My number one favorite thing to buy at thrift stores is cashmere. Vintage cashmere from Scotland is a much higher quality than designer-brand cashmere that has been sourced from China. I can usually find thicker, two-ply cashmere sweaters at the thrift store for under $8. Typically, thick cashmere sweaters arrive at the thrift store for two reasons: 1. They are a hideous color, and 2. They are hopelessly stained.

Luckily a $7 jar of black dye is usually all that's needed to make even stained cashmere look new again. This is a great way to refresh faded silk shirts too.

6. Re-Tint Paint

My local paint store sells cans of paint for $5 per gallon. This is a $35 savings per can. What's the catch? The discounted paint has already been tinted and rejected by a previous customer. If you are flexible with your color scheme, this is a great way to save money on paint. If you want to change the paint color, say make a grass green a forest green or turn a beige into a maroon, paint stores will re-tint paint for a small price, or you can buy a tinting kit and do it yourself. Re-tinting is an excellent way to use up leftover paint from another project.

7. Forgo Red Roses

One of my 950,000 jobs I had in college was as a florist. Every day, approximately 20 young gentlemen would order a single, long-stemmed, red rose. (Always with a lot of babies' breath, as if this would make the solitary rose look bigger. Always). Approximately 19 times a day, I would attempt to talk the young gentleman out of this order for several reasons. First of all, red roses have been the symbol of romantic love in western culture for hundreds of years. In the language of flowers a single, red rose means, "I love you," so that's kind of a forward message to send to someone after a casual first date, or to your mom, for that matter. Second, long-stemmed roses are extremely over-bred to the point that most varieties have lost their fragrance.

Fragrance is a key part of the experience of flowers, so I always encouraged customers to use their nose and their eyes when choosing blooms. Finally, remember hurdles? Red long-stemmed roses never go on sale, unless they are old blooms that the florist is trying to dump. A single red rose at my floral shop cost $4.99, but an entire bouquet of freesias or tulips cost just three dollars more. By avoiding the traditional flower purchase, the flower buyer can assemble a unique and meaningful arrangement of blooms that reflects the taste and the personality of the recipient, and cost less money per stem.

8. Purchase Ugly Apples

Ever notice how dumpy organic produce at the farmers' market looks in comparison to the glamour veggies at the grocery store? Plant breeders are constantly tweaking our food to increase shelf life, pack more efficiently, or ripen at an earlier date. Each of these changes to plant genetics can result in less flavorful and less nutritious food. Red Delicious apples will always have the fairy tale visual appeal, but the homelier Fuji wins out in taste and texture.

9. Avoid This Season's Color

The fashion and design community spends a huge amount of time and money each year convincing buyers that color trends are important. What's the easiest way of getting a sale price on this year's color? Don't buy it. That's a 100% discount.

It is pointless to buy unflattering clothes, regardless of how on-trend they might be. Also, since most stores sort clothes on the racks by color, it's easy for me to speed shop. I head for the colors that flatter my skin tone and ignore everything else.

Coral pink is one of my favorite colors and I always get compliments when I wear it. Every 10 years, coral comes back into fashion and I stock up on t-shirts, scarves, cashmere sweaters, and other garments that have some longevity. This shopping binge ensures that I always have at least something to wear in that color between coral cycles. It also ensures that I have enough colored clothing to sit out years of pastel blue, taupe, and other colors that make me look like death. Since coral is one of those "weird" colors, I can usually wait until the end of the season to buy garments on sale, or wait six months until that color trend gets dumped at the thrift stores by fashionistas who are hungry for the latest "it" color.

Have you saved money by buying the wrong color?

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Guest's picture

You can have all the coral you want, but I'll snap up that baby blue! It may make you look like death, but it's perfect for me.

That said, the "neutrals" thing is something to keep in mind for your lifetime too. My mom's wardrobe is full of a mountain of bright colors that she loves, but she always asks me why she can't make a "good" looking outfit (like whatever I'm wearing that day). I've tried explaining that my wardrobe is 70% true neutrals, 25% blues (which are "kind of" neutrals, but not really neutral in the traditional sense as they are all shades of blue), and 5% other (a handful of shirts, dresses and skirts that I've accrued for specific reasons but like too much to get rid of yet). Neutrals go on sale/clearance basically year-round, as styles change, so they're easy to find regularly.

Otherwise, I have definitely looked at unpopular colors in the past: consider whether changing the color will be easy - a $5 ugly lamp, two free end tables in various wood grains, plus a free white dresser get hit with some black and silver spray paint (about $20 worth for the better kind - one coat for solid coverage), and we had a gorgeous matching set of furniture for our living room that all matched and has served us well for several years. We're upgrading the two end tables to bookshelves, but black is easy to find, and adding some silver accents is cheap (basically free), and will tie them in with the set without breaking the bank.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Amanda!

I think it's possible to have a wardrobe of bright colors & look great every day. (Look at Michelle Obama as an example). However matching colors and patterns is actually a rare talent...which is why textile designers exist. It might help your mom if she teams up with a friend--who has a personal style that she admires--to go through her wardrobe with her and make up a bunch of outfits using the clothes she already owns.

Most people, even people who wear mainly neutrals, don't shop for new clothes with their old clothes in mind. This bad shopping habit is just more obvious with people who love color. I have an extremely small wardrobe. In order to make it into my closet, a new garment has to match 90% of my existing wardrobe, otherwise I don't buy it.

When I was a personal shopper, I used to dress customers and then take a polaroid that they could reference later. Sort of like a human paper doll. There are now apps for this. It helps take the stress out of getting dressed in the morning if you've got 30 good outfits that you can repeat over and over.

And yes, you can have all the baby blue. All of it.

Guest's picture

Your method of looking for coral clothes also works for household items. Keep your eyes peeled in the thrifts and be true to one or two colors you really love and they should all hang together. I'm a sucker for cranberry furnishings, cobalt blue bowls and black clothes. Accessory items that go with these grounding colors keep the final combo lively but not overly busy.

Guest's picture

Coral Cycles! Who knew!

Max Wong's picture

Every color cycles, just some have a shorter rotation than others!

Guest's picture
Kelli B

Great tips - especially about flowers. A guy who buys you an untraditional bunch of flowers may come off less cliche and more like someone who actually put some thought into the gift... all while getting more bang for the buck!