Are You Getting Scammed?

Illustration by Carolyn Ridsdale

You’ll never believe the sneaky psychological tricks stores use to get you to spend big. Here’s how to stop falling for them! 

 

You’re just running into the drugstore to pick up some deodorant and posterboard for your U.S. history project. But when you emerge, you’ve got three bulging shopping bags, a receipt a mile long, and you’re out $40 of your birthday money. What just happened? 

Blame the store, which was probably playing with your brain. Businesses have a ton of sneaky tricks they use to mess with your mind and get you to buy, buy, buy. In fact, companies have spent billions studying how to seduce you into opening your wallet! Crazy, right? 

Whether you’re shopping online or in your favorite store, nothing is accidental, says psychologist Paco Underhill, a retail consultant who studies the science of shopping. That’s why we compiled some of the most common tactics stores may use to trick you, so you can recognize them—and keep your hard-earned cash for the stuff you really need. 

 

 SALES THAT AREN’T REALLY SALES 

Your brain is wired to get excited if you think you’re getting a deal, so stores set incredibly high “retail prices”—then run near-constant sales. “Because teens are especially eager for bargains, the ‘retail prices’ in the teen department are some of the most inflated,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, co-author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. “They are counting on you to buy things you don’t need just because they’re on sale.” Stores also count on you to miss the fine print: That sale sign that’s placed over a whole rack may apply only to the goods on one side, but once you get your still-full-price jeans to the register, they know you probably won’t put them back. 

 

A MAZELIKE FLOOR PLAN

​Ever wonder why the checkout is at the back of your favorite store at the mall? It’s no accident. The owners  hope you’ll be tempted by every product you pass on your way there. “Research shows the longer you spend in a store, the more you’ll buy,” says marketing expert Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.  That’s also why stores constantly move stuff around. Even the shelves are strategically arranged, with the most expensive items at eye level. (One study found that you’re 35 percent more likely to buy an item at eye-level compared with an item on a higher or lower shelf!) 

 

LIMITED QUANTITIES AND TODAY-ONLY DISCOUNTS

You know that counter on Amazon.com that says “Only X left in stock”? That’s a classic trick designed to prey on your subliminal fear of missing out, or FOMO. It carries over from ancient times when every missed opportunity (think: not hearing about an untapped fruit tree) put us in danger of starving, Yarrow says. These days, businesses know they can get you to click “buy” when you’re on the fence. Hourly deals and sale signs that scream “TODAY ONLY!” also make FOMO kick in. “It’s hard to resist the fear that if you don’t buy it now, it won’t be there later or will be more expensive,” Yarrow says. 

 

TOUCH-ME DISPLAYS

Studies show that people who touch an item are willing to pay about
50 percent more than those who don’t! So of course stores encourage you to try on clothes. Some even intentionally leave their displays a bit messed up to encourage you to reach out and touch. They know that once you put your hands on something, chances are, you’ll take it home.

 

PIPED-IN SCENTS AND MUSIC  

Mmmmm, do you smell cinnamon? Many shops release carefully crafted fragrances to put you in a good mood and boost sales. Some are obvious, like the scent of coconut in the summer clothes section, but others are more understated. “A subtle food scent can get your saliva glands working and make you think you’re hungry,” Underhill says, “and sellers know that if you’re hungry, you’re likely to spend more.” In one study, 84 percent of people were willing to pay $10 more for a pair of sneakers in a floral-scented room compared to an identical pair shown in an unscented room. Some stores also play carefully chosen background music. A slower tempo encourages you to move at a slower pace, which causes you to linger—and spend more!

 

SUPERSIZED CARTS

Even drug stores have shopping carts these days. Do you know why? They’re counting on you to grab extra stuff and drop it in! And the carts are getting bigger too because—you guessed it —the bigger your cart, the more you’ll buy. “Subconsciously, you want to fill that empty space,” Lindstrom says. “You feel unproductive walking around with an empty cart.” 

 

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