Do you know what I love? Walking into my supermarket the day after Thanksgiving and hearing the best Christmas music ever. Yeah! And if I wasn't in the mood to bake Christmas cookies before I got there, just hearing that lovely music changes everything. Right there, that proves I am the quintessential impulsive consumer. That retailer's got my number.
Playing the right music isn't all that retailers do to manipulate us into dropping more money than we intended. Retailers manipulate all of our senses so we spend more money.
Subtle, psychological cues are worth paying attention to when we're shopping. If we know about them, we can take steps to avoid their effects.
There are lots of cues in stores that have a big impact on what we decide to buy. Color is one of them. Retailers use color on the walls, floors and display tables to their advantage. Red, for example, is always associated with sales because it inspires people to take action. Red is stimulating.
Think you're the only one who detected that amazingly subtle yet delicious scent as you strolled in? Richard Axel and Linda Buck won a Nobel Prize for their work in understanding our olfactory system, which allows us to identify and categorize 10,000 scents, all of which can trigger powerful, nostalgia-laced memories. No wonder a specific fragrance reminds you of your grandmother, or the smell of pine trees floods your mind with childhood camp experiences. Scents can subconsciously affect the way we spend. Theaters, bakeries and countless other retailers know this and capitalize on it big-time.
Many retailers create rest areas where you will be prompted to stop and look around. It might be at the checkout or in an area that screams "cozy place to stop and look around." Once they have that nailed, they load up the area with impulse buys — small things, lovely things they know you won't resist. They'll put them at eye level to aid you in your sweet moment of rest.
We've come to expect that a sale comes with a sign. Most of the time it is a red sign with big black numbers and smaller words that don't really matter. We've seen it so much, now we are like Pavlov's dogs: We react without thinking about it. And what if the word "Sale!" is replaced by "Hot!" or "Bargain!"? We don't notice. We grab and go because it's gotta be a great bargain. Retailers capitalize on what they've learned from Dr. Pavlov.
This one is so crazy, I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. Why is it that humans stop and consider the price thoughtfully when it ends in with .00, but if it ends in .99 or .95, our brains shut down and automatically register it as a good price? Why, oh why? I don't know, but the truth is that they do. It's called the left-digit effect.
Subtracting 1 cent from a round price, such as $9.00, not only changes the rightmost digit but also decreases the leftmost digit of the price (e.g., $8.99). If we're not totally aware of what's going on, we see the item as $8. Retailers count on the "just-below price" all the time because they know we'll fall for it — all the time.
The best way to win when we go up against retailers — which, of course, we do every day — is to be aware. Figure it out. Stop being a mindless, impulsive, broke consumer. Go in with a plan, a list, cash and a strong mind. Make a note of the sounds and smells. Look at the pricing structure. Do a mental, "Ah-ha! I know why you're doing that!" when you see prices ending with .95 or .99. Then take control of yourself. Don't give in to those silly ploys. Resist the impulse displays, get what you need and then get out of there!
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.