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It’s no secret that stores want you to spend as much money as possible. But how far do they go to make it happen? In fact, business psychologists and marketing experts have concocted a number of ways to get you to buy more products and spend more money than you intended.
You may already be falling for some of these tricks without realizing it.
“Margins are very slim in grocery business, and stores and brands have to be very aggressive to motivate consumers to move items into shopping carts,” explains Suraj Commuri, associate professor of business at the University at Albany and an expert on consumer behavior.
Here are the top ways that stores get you to spend more money — and how you can avoid falling for their sneaky tricks.
1. Clever product placement
Simply put, clever product placement is designed to make you spend as much money as possible at the store. Store designs ensure that the product layout appeals to shoppers’ physical senses, psychological needs, and of course, the most popular items on their lists.
Fruits and vegetables are usually placed near the entrance of the grocery store to give people the impression that they have chosen a healthy place to shop. If there is an on-site bakery or florist, those are usually all near the front door, too. The smell of fresh bread makes people hungry, and they become more likely to buy a lot of food.
Meanwhile, the essential products that everyone needs are typically placed at the back of the store. This forces the now hungry customers to walk through all the other aisles before they get to the dairy, bread, and cheese.
The individual shelves are designed for profit, too. For example, there might be expensive jars of organic salsa placed right next to the taco shells, which makes your shopping experience more convenient because everything you need for dinner is right in front of you. So, naturally you buy the expensive salsa.
Even when you get to the proper aisle, expensive brands are always placed at eye-level so you see them first. Even kid’s cereals are placed at a particular eye level to make kids feel as if the cartoon characters are looking directly at them, begging to be taken home. This only gets worse when cereal boxes have kid’s favorite characters, like Kellogg's new cereal with Anna and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen on the front.
Eat a snack before going shopping so that you aren't hungry. It’s far easier to turn down extra food on a full stomach.
You also want to have a plan, Commuri says.
“Making a shopping list before entering a grocery store and sticking to it during the shopping trip has two advantages: It keeps you away from distractions; and even if you fall for any of the tricks, you still got what you wanted to start with," he says.
Remember to look down, because all of the cheaper brands are usually closer to the floor, where retailers hope you won’t see them. Convincing your kids to stay away from unhealthy cereal is hard, so you might consider just skipping that aisle when they’re shopping with you.
2. Bigger shopping carts
There’s something satisfying about walking out of the store with a full cart of groceries. But what most people don’t realize is that shopping carts have actually gotten bigger since at least 1975, when consumer advocate Ralph Nader first started noticing.
A handful of items doesn’t fill up a cart the way they did 40 years ago. This may subconsciously shame people into buying more. Customers see their peers walking around the store or standing in line with full carts, which makes them feel obligated to buy more, so as not to appear like they’re poor.
It’s a similar to the twinge of jealousy you might feel if you have a 20-year old car and someone else your age rolls up next to you in the parking lot with a brand new Tesla.
Instead of using a regular shopping cart, choose smaller carts if they’re available. Certain Supermarkets offer smaller carts that are meant just for a handful of items. You can also opt to use hand baskets, and you can bring your own reusable bag, too.
Personally, I avoid getting a cart unless it’s completely necessary. If I only buy what I can carry in my hands or shopping bag, it seriously puts a limit on what I am able to bring to the checkout counter. This forces me to only buy what is absolutely necessary.
Ditching the cart will allow you to walk through the store faster, avoid crowding the aisles, and get away from any temptation to buy more. Of course, if you have something heavy to buy, don’t hurt yourself by carrying it. Just remember that if you feel guilty about an empty cart, don’t give in. It’s how they want you to feel.
3. Pricing games
There is something about seeing the numbers ".99" that tricks people into believing that they are paying less than they actually are. New York University did a study to see if an item priced at $4.99 really makes a difference in a customer’s purchase decision compared to something that is priced at $5.00 flat, and it absolutely does. They call the phenomenon the “left digit effect”.
As someone who’s worked in retail a long time, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “It was $4” when they actually bought something for $4.75 or $4.99. In many cases, stores will actually drop the dollar sign on price tags as well, which takes away your association with money and makes it easier to spend.
Start rounding up. Remember how you learned in elementary school math class that if a decimal is 5 or bigger, the numbers round up? Get in the habit of training your brain to think that way. When I go shopping, I take it one step further if I know the item will be taxed.
For example, if an item is $17.99, the store wants to trick you into thinking $17.00, but I think of it as $20. This way, I get a much more accurate estimate of what my total is going to cost when I check out. I tend to do this all the time, which means that when I buy non-taxed food items, I am pleasantly surprised when my total comes out to be less than what I added up in my head.
Unfortunately, most people have the opposite experience. When I worked as a grocery store cashier as a teenager, it was extremely common for people to fall for this trick.
Multiple times a day, people would be shocked by the total. In the best case scenario, they would jokingly say, “I don’t know how that happened.” Other times, people had to request that I void multiple items off of their order, because they had clearly rounding down instead of up and exceeded their budgets. Some people even tried to argue about how the prices did not match their estimated total, all because of the “left digit effect”. If this describes you, then it’s probably time to start rounding up.