You went into the store to buy milk, and you came out of the store with milk—plus $120 worth of impulse purchases.
What just happened?
Shoppers make almost half of all purchases spontaneously,1 but that impulse buying is very much part of a plan. Retailers have several techniques that appeal to your subconscious, like getting you to walk impulsively into stores, linger even if you meant to just run in, and ultimately buy more than you intended.
“Very smart, well-educated people are being paid a lot of money to come up with these psychological tricks,” says Truist head of financial wellness Brian Ford. These techniques are expertly designed and pretty tough to resist—but not impossible.
First, let’s look at some of the ploys retailers use.
Visual strategies that increase your impulse buying
- Rose-tinted mirrors: Some stores use mirrors and lighting known to be flattering to shoppers. By doing this, they’re hoping that these enhanced reflections persuade you to buy that outfit.
- Curb appeal: Clean window displays and sales bins at the front of the store draw shoppers into stores they hadn’t even planned to enter.
- Counterpoint: People’s general inclination is to turn right when entering a store. Retailers know this and purposely design stores to move in a counterclockwise direction, which causes shoppers to slow down and browse the aisles.
- Add to cart: Shopping carts have nearly tripled in size in the last 50 years. This additional roominess makes shoppers’ carts look emptier, so they add more to them.
- Highways and byways: Retailers are careful to strike a balance between aisles that are narrow enough to encourage a slowdown in shopping, but not so narrow that aisles get clogged and frustrated shoppers leave.
Other sensory shopping temptations
- Remember the glory days: Slower songs or nostalgic music that reminds us of days gone by encourage shoppers to linger over that display of impulse items.
- Smells like a great deal: Research has shown that our brains respond strongly to scent, and that shoppers will feel like buying more expensive items if they smell cinnamon.2
- The magic touch: Some stores encourage you to touch their items—touch it, and you’re more likely to buy it.
- Make a U-turn: Shoppers are drawn to displays that are U-shaped; it’s like a subconscious hug.
Shoppers will feel like buying more expensive items if they smell cinnamon.
Creative pricing and other numbers games
There are also clever methods of tweaking prices that encourage shoppers to spend more while thinking they’re spending less.
- Free shipping … sort of: You weren’t planning to spend $50, but it seems like a deal to get a few extra things to save $10 on shipping, right?
- Charmed, we’re sure: Prices that end in 9 are called charm prices. Shoppers are more likely to buy something at $9.99 instead of $10.00 because it feels like a better deal. Consumers tend to think of an item priced at $49.99 as $40 and not nearly $50.
- Do without the dollar sign: It’s not just the 9 that’s magic. High-end restaurants don’t add dollar signs to their menus because diners respond better to “Soup - 9” than they do to “Soup - $9.”
- Gift with purchase: This is similar to spending that $50 to get free delivery. Shoppers are willing to spend more to get a bonus “gift” for spending a certain amount.
How you can resist impulse buying
There are more examples of stores’ psychological tricks than the ones above. What chance does a shopper have against impulse buying? Both Ford and Bright Dickson, Truist’s positive psychology expert, have some ideas for staying strong.
1. Knowledge is power.
Ford says the best way to combat these psychological pulls is to know they exist in the first place: “If you don’t understand the rules of the game, you don’t stand a chance.” Talking about these tricks increases awareness. “If you have a family, you could get together over dinner and make these tricks a focal point. Let’s talk about how it’s us against them. We work hard for our money. We want to keep it to buy stuff we really care about,” he says.
“They’re designed perfectly to work,” says Dickson. “Have the knowledge going in that you’re walking into an environment that is engineered to get you to spend more money.”
Another way to find power in knowledge is to look at your shopping habits. Which stores trigger that buy-more-than-you-need feeling in you? It might be best to avoid them. “Look at where your weak points are,” says Dickson, “and then don’t put yourself in those situations.” Delete your online shopping apps, or buy your cleaning supplies at a store that doesn’t also sell cute shoes or tempting electronics.
2. Don’t let emotions affect your wallet.
Ford also encourages shoppers to keep their guard up, noting if they catch themselves making a purchase based on a rush of feeling.
“Do I really need that item? If so, that’s just fine, but if not, be mindful of your emotions in that moment,” cautions Ford. So, if the store is playing your favorite song from high school, be aware of what it’s doing to your mood.
Dickson acknowledges that these appeals to our emotions can feel great when we give in to them, but ultimately, financial security comes from making good decisions over a long period. That peace of mind feels better in the long run than an impulse purchase does in the moment. But still, Dickson says, “I’ll allow myself a small budget for fulfilling that emotion in the moment. So, I’ll say, all right, you can do 30 bucks of whatever, but that’s the limit.”
She also keeps online purchases in her cart for a few days. “If you’re still thinking about it two days later, go ahead and get it,” she advises.
“And returning stuff feels great, too,” she notes. “It’s like free money.
3. You can’t save by spending.
Another trick to stay aware of is the illusion that you’re getting a deal.
“It’s a natural, inborn human emotion” to seek a great item at a low price, says Ford. But what you’re actually doing is spending money you weren’t planning to. “Any time a retailer can make you feel like you’re getting a lower price than the next person, you’re more inclined to buy it, even if you don’t need it,” he says. And when that emotion is coupled with a sense that the item won’t be around forever? That’s a powerful motivator.
Ford tells the story of a time his wife called to say she got a great deal on something that was normally $20, but sold for $13. “I saved $7!” she told Ford, when she called him as she left the store.
“I said, ‘So you have $13 less than you did when you went in, and you think you saved? Retail corporate America has gotten you to believe that you saved. Saving is when you earn money and you actually put it somewhere so that you can have it later.’ You can’t save money on a purchase,” Ford says.
“You can’t save money on a purchase.” – Brian Ford, Truist Head of Financial Wellness
4. Be kind to yourself.
With so many tricks up companies’ sleeves, you still might find yourself buying more than you’d planned from time to time, no matter how much you prepare. When that happens, don’t be too frustrated.
“Be compassionate toward yourself; you’re up against something much bigger than you,” says Dickson. “Be nice to yourself, because the tricks you fell for were designed to do just that.”