Six Ways Stores Get You to Overspend

By Mike Peterson
In January 15, 2014

You went to the local big-box retailer to pick up a couple of very specific essentials.  It should have been a quick – and relatively inexpensive — trip. 


Once you got to the store, though, that “quick” trip turned into something else entirely:  You got what you came for — but you also bought six bargain-priced DVDs; two industrial-sized bottles of shampoo; and, for reasons you don’t fully understand, a 50-pack pallet of instant mac and cheese.   Your total was way more than you expected, but the store gave you a 15 percent discount just for opening a new credit card, so that’s good, right?


Okay, I’m exaggerating – but just a little.  If you’ve ever headed to the store for “a few things” and come home with bags of unexpected impulse purchases, you know exactly how quickly a shopping trip can spiral out of control.


How does this happen?  Sure, it’s easy to argue that you are mostly responsible for the extra spending – but there’s a little more to it than that:  Retailers use all kinds of subtle tactics to make sure you leave with more than you came for, from music to strategic product placement to literally blocking the aisles to make you slow down and browse. 


Want to avoid these sneaky spending traps?  Here are five to watch out for:


1.  Pricier items are shelved at eye level.  The next time you’re at the grocery store, take some time to look – really look — at the items on the shelves.  Chances are, you’ll notice something interesting:  All of the most expensive items are placed more or less at eye level.  Cheaper products and generic versions are more likely to be higher or lower, where you’re more likely to miss them.  


Want to get the best deal?  Look beyond the fancy eye-level items.  You’ll likely find comparable products at better prices.


2. Clutter makes you feel like you’re getting a deal.  Ever notice that most “discount” stores often look disorganized?  Or that sale racks at department stores typically look like disaster areas?  It’s easy to assume that the clutter is just the result of an overworked sales staff – but it’s much more likely that the disorder is intentional.  Over time, marketing researchers discovered that people tend to associate cluttered store shelves with bargains.


The lesson here:  Don’t let the clutter fool you.  A disorganized store doesn’t automatically mean lower prices.


3.  Stores use “speed bumps” to slow you down.  In retail terms, a “speed bump” is a display designed to make you slow down and take notice (and spend money, of course!).  Common retail “speed bumps” include large pallets of sale items like laundry detergent or bottled water stacked up at the store’s entrance; or oversized displays strategically placed in the middle of busy aisles.


Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about speed bumps, especially when you’re trying to navigate your cart around that three-foot-tall stack of dish soap that’s blocking the aisle.  All you can really do is try to avoid getting sidetracked and keep moving as quickly as you can.  


4.  Music can affect your mood.  This sounds obvious, but when you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to spend money.  One way retailers help “set the mood” is by using music – particularly, music that makes you feel nostalgic, such as holiday tunes or Top 40 hits from your childhood.


A good way to avoid this?  Bring your own music – and some headphones.


5.  Oversized shopping carts encourage overspending.  When you’re pushing a large cart, it’s easy to feel like you’ve got room for a just few more purchases – even if you got everything you came for.  You look at that half-full cart and think, “I don’t have that much stuff – what’s the harm in a few extras?”  And then you get home and realize that you spent an extra $50 on junk that you didn’t really need.


If you’re only buying a few items, opt for the handheld basket instead – you won’t have any room for extra impulse purchases.  If you have to use a cart, stay focused – and be on the lookout for speed bumps and other distractions.


6. Store-credit discounts make it easy to spend more.  This is one of the worst – and most financially dangerous – tactics out there.  You’re at the register, ready to pay, when the cashier hands you a brochure and a sales pitch:  If you apply for a store credit card, you can save XX percent on your purchase – right now!  That’s a great deal!


If you read this blog regularly, you probably know what I’m going to say.  Don’t do it.  Store cards are the worst of all possible worlds:  You get all of the high-interest debt that comes with a regular credit card – with none of the flexibility or rewards that you get with a (responsibly used!) major credit card.


So, there you go:  Six ways stores secretly get you to spend more money.  The next time you go shopping – take a list – and commit to buying ONLY the items on your list. Now, you can shop with confidence.  And the next time a store tries to bombard you with feel-good tunes or slow you down with speed bumps, you’ll be aware – and you’ll be able to walk away without overspending.

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

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