From supermarkets to fashion stores, shops employ clever retail psychology tricks designed to get you to spend more money. Stores are carefully engineered and every aspect of the design has a highly specific purpose – from the background music and product placement to the colours chosen.
The stores can’t be happy until they get their hands on your wallet – so how do these guys make it happen? Let me reveal some of the psychology tricks retailers have up in their sleeves.
Psychological tricks retailers use to make you buy more
It’s said that only 5% of our buying decisions are made consciously. Therefore, retailers have the subconscious 95% to play tricks on. To become a savvy shopper and cut your spending, start by recognising these 14 subtle yet common retail psychology tricks.
1. Clever product placement
“Eye level is buy level.” Your eyes are what you shop with, and they aren’t spared from supermarket tricks. Eye-level is where the items supermarkets want you to buy the most are located. You typically find brand items staring you right in the face in grocery aisles, with cheaper supermarket brands closer to the floor level. The brands even pay more for eye-level product placement, relying on your laziness to look up or down to find a better deal.
If you are a parent, you might have noticed that the lower shelves often have items that children are attracted to. In this area, there are plenty of brightly coloured and appealing items. This means it’s easier for children to spot them – and of course, beg their parents to buy these for them.
2. Visual pricing tactics
There are various retail psychology pricing tricks that stores often use to make you spend more money. Here are a couple of common examples:
- Reduce the left digit by 1: Our brain encodes numbers so quickly that a smaller first digit is enough to make the price seem much smaller: £9.99 feels like a lot less than £10.
- Choose numbers with fewer syllables: Although people don’t usually say prices out loud, studies show that people perceive phonetically shorter prices as being cheaper. Even if two prices have the same written length (e.g. £27.82 vs. £28.16), the phonetically longer price gets associated with a higher price.
- Remove the comma: Research shows that removing commas makes a price seem lower. For instance £1,699 vs. £1699.
Retailers know that if a customer loves one item, they’re more likely to buy another that matches or complements the first. This is called cross-selling.
Fashion brands use this strategy a lot with the patterns and textiles they choose. You’ll often see the exact same print on a pair of pants, a top and a jacket, for example. If you really like the pants, you’ll probably want the top, too. The same thing goes for pairing and combining items, such as clothes, accessories and jewellery.
Cross-selling is a commonly used tactic in e-commerce as well. Think about Amazon, for example. You’ve no doubt been shown items related to the product you’re planning to buy, or bundles of related items (such as a camera, a case, and a memory card) sold for less than what they would cost if bought separately. A good deal? Only if you were planning to buy all three to begin with.
4. Store layout
A smart store layout and frequent changes are one of the key retail psychology tricks that stores utilise to make us buy more.
Many shops, supermarkets especially, will move products around regularly so that you are forced to scan the shelves and see more items you want to buy. They also place daily essentials, such as milk and bread, at the end of the store to force you to walk through the shop. This increases the likelihood of you making more impulse purchases.
Another great example is maze-like stores. You’re probably thinking about Ikea already! They use something called the “Gruen effect” — the simple idea that exposing you to more products will encourage you to buy and spend more.
5. False sense of urgency and scarcity
Retailers know that you don’t want to miss out on a deal. They will use phrases like “only two left” or “limited time offer” to persuade you to buy more. Our brains are wired for scarcity, so we feel an urgency when these messages come our way and it is hard to resist buying before they’re gone!
Anything limited creates a sense of urgency and primes us to act quickly. Sales are by definition limited. Online stores also use this retail psychology trick when they say the stock is limited and other people are watching the same item. Hotel websites, such as Booking.com, are a prime example of this. It works because most of us want to avoid the pain of losing something. If you are interested in learning more, read my article specifically covering ecommerce psychology tricks.
These items may be tempting to buy on the spot, but while you’re there, consider if it’s really worth opening your wallet for.
6. Buy one, get one free
Who wouldn’t love a good bargain! Science shows that our brains even experience pleasure at the prospect of a bargain. However, BOGO (buy one, get one free) deals compel you to buy more than you normally would. The prices are usually set high enough to cover the “free” item.
Now, if you’re already planning to make a purchase and a second one is free, by all means, take the freebie. But if you find yourself suddenly justifying the purchase of unnecessary new shoes because of a BOGO deal, the retailer has done a good job to get to trick you!
7. Social proof
Social proof is the concept that people will follow the actions of the masses. In short, you are more willing to do something if other people are doing it.
Let’s think about a restaurant, for example. The reason you’re tempted to visit a crowded restaurant instead of an empty one is that you assume the empty restaurant isn’t as good. After all, if they served good food, people would be in them, right? This is social proof in action. Even if the empty restaurant had better food and cheaper prices, since more people are in the other one, the assumption is they’re better.
Reviews are another great example of this retail psychology trick. Online stores in particular rely on strategically-placed reviews and testimonials on a website to convince you to make a purchase.
8. Sizable shopping carts
Did you know that shopping carts were designed in the late 1930s to help customers make larger purchases more easily? Since then, the sizes of shopping carts have even increased massively.
When you have a nice big cart waiting for you at a supermarket entrance, the store encourages you to fill it. In fact, experts say a cart that’s double the size can lead shoppers to buy 40% more than they may actually need. Having a couple of items in a shopping cart that could fit a baby elephant can make you feel like you’re not buying enough. Therefore, try grabbing a basket instead and limiting what you buy to what you can carry.
9. Appeal to the senses
Appealing to our five senses is a retail psychology trick that stores use to trigger an emotional response in consumers. Here are a couple of examples of how this can make you spend more:
The visual sense is by far the one that retailers activate most often in terms of design, colour, style and lighting. A good example of this is visually appealing store windows or sale signs that invite you to walk into a store.
Another major sense that stores try to manipulate is your hearing. Quiet, calm and slow music encourages shoppers to spend more time in the store. On the opposite, faster music speeds up the heart rate, moving people out of fast-food restaurants quicker.
Physically touching a product increases the likelihood of you wanting to buy it. That means that stores are structured in a way that encourages you to always pick things up. That might mean an end cap filled with items, or even a cluttered-looking shelf that you have to sift through. Touching can also lead to lingering and prolonged feelings of ownership, particularly in clothing stores when you usually physically try the items on to assess them.
The sense of taste is something that food and drink retailers in particular use to stimulate consumers’ taste buds. Stores give out free samples to trigger your appetite, which makes you shop hungry and buy food you don’t need.
Some non-food retailers also aim to stimulate your sense of taste. For example, high-end and luxury retail stores often offer customers a complimentary cup of coffee or glass of champagne. A recent study even shows that consuming caffeine before or during shopping can make you spend more money!
Your sense of smell is a strong sense that easily triggers emotional attachments. Studies have even shown that people can remember a scent with 65% accuracy after one year. Emotional connections are the reason why Starbucks coffee shops are filled with the aroma of pumpkin spice during autumn and gingerbread flavours over Christmas. But it’s not just about memories associated with smells. For example, bakeries and supermarkets often place flowers and baked goods near the entrance. Their appealing smell activates your salivary glands, making you more likely to purchase on impulse.
10. Liberal Return Policies
Have you ever purchased something you’re not quite sure about thinking you can always return it if you change your mind? And did you actually end up returning it after changing your mind?
Common sense tells us that we would return more purchases when retailers have liberal return policies. But retailers also know that shoppers are more likely to buy in the first place when such policies are in effect. The secret to the effectiveness of long return windows is in the “Endowment Effect.” This is an idea based on behavioural economics and shows people often put more value on things they own already. This concept shows that it’s a lot harder to get people to let go of an item if they feel ownership of it.
11. Speed bumps
If you’ve ever wondered why a shop aisle feels crowded, it’s not accidental. “Speed bumps” are another retail psychology trick that makes us spend more time in store. Stores will place things like tables or racks that stick out from the aisle to get customers to slow down. The last thing retailers want is for someone to be in and out within a couple of minutes. Therefore, they arrange tables and displays to obstruct the natural walking flow of the floor plan. The slower you walk, the more items will catch your eye. And the more items catch your eye, the more likely you are to buy more.
12. Placing sales items strategically
Retailers often tempt shoppers to come into their stores by putting sales items relatively close to the entrance. This way even customers that don’t usually shop in that store might be tempted to come in for bargain hunting.
Another sneaky spot to place clearance items is near the checkout line. Retailers know how many people can’t resist this!
13. "Free" samples
Everyone loves free food! Therefore, it’s no surprise that most people take free samples when offered. This is something that retailers love too because it can massively increase their sales.
So why are free samples so effective? In short, you’re more likely to buy something when you get a free sample. This is mainly because of reciprocity. In other words, we feel the need to give something back to the person who has just given us something for free.
14. Carefully chosen colours
Different colours also have different associations and are therefore used for different purposes.
For example, colours can help stores to attract attention and encourage consumers to step into the store quickly. Colours like red and orange at the entrance tend to stand out and draw the eye, driving more customers in store. This is why sale signs are often red as well.
As opposite, the calming effect of cool colours is associated with the encouragement of spending more. So, even if you are drawn into stores by warm hues, once inside, colours like blue and green would be the ones that will make you loosen your purse strings.
How to beat retail psychology tricks
Knowing what retailers are trying to do and how is half the battle. The other half is all about being prepared before you buy. Now that you know more about the tricks retailers use to influence your spending, you can pay more attention to your purchase behaviour. Here are some ways to beat retailer tricks:
Know what you want before going shopping and don’t get easily distracted. Or even better, make a shopping list and stick to it. This will help you wise up to the psychological tricks.
To avoid getting sucked in by pricing tricks, only purchase what you planned to purchase. Bargains are only bargains if you actually need the items.
Don’t buy something just because it’s “on sale.”
Resist spending money on things that give you instant gratification or that you simply don’t need. Instead, save the money for your long-term goals.
Don’t get rushed into making quick decisions because of “limited deals”. Take your time to ensure you have done your research so you know you are getting the item you want at a good price.
Avoid unnecessary impulse purchases by stopping and thinking about whether the item will actually make you happy or improve your life quality.
Keep away from window shopping or aimlessly browsing in stores altogether if you have a tendency to give in to impulse purchases.