I blame my suspicious nature on my neighborhood grocery store. The store used to be a logically arranged market with bright lights and clean floors — a basic, friendly, functional place to shop. Then the bulldozers morphed it into a big, fancy-schmancy supermarket complete with shopping triggers like mood lighting, Starbucks, Panda Express and lots of comfy chairs.
This is a great example of how retailers use tricks to persuade consumers to buy more. As consumers, our best defense is to educate ourselves. Here are seven tricks to know about.
NO. 1 TRIGGER: BEAUTIFUL AMBIENCE
Retailers know that as many as 70% of all purchases are unplanned! They want you to linger as long as possible, so they create an atmosphere that's inviting to the store's target audience. The music, the lighting and the displays are all designed to pull us in.
Outsmart them! Don't browse. Just get in, get what you need, and leave. True needs are not discovered while standing in a store aisle.
NO. 2 TRIGGER: STRATEGICALLY PLACED MERCHANDISE
"Some retailers insist on displaying their most expensive items up front. It makes everything else seem inexpensive afterward," warns Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. and author of "Influence: Science and Practice."
With sale items, it's a kind of double trick. We get pulled in by the promise of a sale, but once we're inside, those sale items often aren't clearly displayed or as desirable as we thought. But, because we've already mentally decided to buy, we often buy something else.
Outsmart them! If the purchase you thought you wanted turns out not to be what you were led to believe, take a moment to think about it. Don't feel compelled to buy something else to make up for it.
NO. 3 TRIGGER: EASY ACCESS
Research shows that if you touch something, you're more likely to buy it. That's why products like stuffed animals and candy are placed within easy reach of children at the grocery checkout, and soft blankets or cozy sweaters are positioned strategically on low tables at a store entrance.
Outsmart them! Hands off. Don't touch the merchandise, even to look at the price tag, unless it's something you've planned to buy.
NO. 4 TRIGGER: SPACIOUS SHOPPING CARTS
A cart frees you to touch more things. "Stores that offer baskets or carts sell more than ones that don't," says Paco Underhill, author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping." "And when stores increase the size of the baskets, they often find that shoppers purchase more items."
Outsmart them! Forget the cart. Or at least opt for the smallest one.
NO. 5 TRIGGER: SHRINKING PRODUCTS
This one often goes unnoticed. A "3-pound" can of coffee is now 28 ounces but costs the same. And how about that "half-gallon" of ice cream that's now 1.5 quarts? Though it's not limited to food products, this trick is prevalent in supermarkets.
Outsmart them! Know your weights and measures as well as your prices. Pay attention to the unit price listed on the shelf (the cost per ounce, for example).
If the item has shrunk, try a different brand or wait for a sale.
NO. 6 TRIGGER: MILK IN THE BACK
This trick is as old as they come, yet it will get you every time if you're not mentally prepared. Supermarkets typically put the quick-pickup items of milk and eggs way at the back of the store. This forces you to go through the store, exposing you to all kinds of other items that might grab your attention.
Outsmart them! Make a beeline for what you want, and leave. Or bring only enough cash for what you need.
NO. 7 TRIGGER: CLEVER WORDING
Stores count on the fact that most people assume words like "Special!" or "Hot Deal!" mean the same as "On Sale!" Don't believe it. A big display of picnic food items with a sign announcing "Summer Blowout!" is not necessarily filled with great bargains.
Outsmart them! Keep track of the regular prices of the items you buy most often; you'll know right away if there's really a sale.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com, "Ask Mary a Question." This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of Debt-Proof Living, a personal finance member website and the author of the book Debt-Proof Living, Revell 2014. To find out more about Mary visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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