How to Avoid Retail Spending Traps
If you've ever been lured into spending more than you intended at a supermarket or department store, you're not alone. Stores employ a host of tricks and traps specifically designed to entice you to make unintended purchases. We spoke with several experts to identify these common retail minefields—and get their tips on how to successfully sidestep them. Read on to become a savvy shopper at every type of store.
The Gimmick:Buy-in-bulk deals, such as, "3 boxes of cereal for "
Your Strategy:"Consumers often think they have to buy all [the] items to get the advertised deal," says Yahoo! personal finance expert Farnoosh Torabi. But often bulk "deals" are a sneaky way of promoting product—and you can still score the same savings by just buying one item, instead of, say, three. Before you fill your cart, read the fine print—especially if the item is perishable.
The Gimmick:Rows and rows of mega-sized shopping carts Your Strategy: According to marketing expert Martin Lindstrom, author of , the bigger the cart, the more likely you are to spend, since you'll be enticed to fill up all that empty space with excess food. Pay attention to what's going in your cart as you shop, and if you only need a few items, opt for a basket instead.
The Gimmick:Fresh, appealing produce lines the entrance
Your Strategy:Overflowing bins of produce trigger a "must buy now" impulse in shoppers. When you see perishables stacked by the entryway, it's natural to think, "If I want these pomegranates, I'd better get them while they're fresh." Stores hope that you will retain that sense of urgency, and that it will influence your spending beyond the produce aisle. To keep your tab in check, remember that nothing in the store is "going, going, gone." According to Lindstrom, examining produce is a good way to avoid overspending in that section. "Remember that you're installed with a nose, hands and eyes," he says. "Always smell, touch and inspect the item before buying. Less than 25 percent of people do this, and it can make you buy products that are way past their due dates."
The Gimmick:Free samples are offered at every turn
Your Strategy:A store doesn't hand out complimentary tastes because it's feeling kind. Instead, it hopes that by doing something nice for you, you'll feel obligated to purchase something in return. Plus, "as soon as you take a bite, you 'wake up' all of your senses and your body decides that it's time to eat," says Lindstrom. "Even the smallest serving of cheese will leave you hungry for other things," which is why these shops often sell complementary items, such as bread, crackers and dried fruit. If your intention is to save money, says Lindstrom, stay away from these sample stations and let your shopping list be your guide.
The Gimmick:Free happy hours and educational seminars
Your Strategy:Whether it's an educational tasting during a wine shop's happy hour, or a cheese monger who provides informative anecdotes with every sample, the store has one goal in mind: getting you to spend. According to Lindstrom, "things like drinking wine and eating cheese activates our memory bank—remember that trip to France?––and make us want to buy to relive those feelings." Teri Gault, CEO and founder of The Grocery Game, recommends taking a "cooling off period" after a tasting or seminar. "Unless there's a special sale, it's safe to assume that the same cheese or wine will be there on another day." Plus, she notes, you can likely find the same quality items at a warehouse club store for much less.
The Gimmick:Intentionally vague sale signs on clothing racks
Your Strategy:It may seem counterintuitive, but don't assume that all of the merchandise on a sale rack is actually marked down, says Gault. Some stores will place a sale sign in the middle of a four-pronged rack, so customers think the price of everything on the rack has been slashed; but in reality, only the goods on one side are discounted. The store hopes that either you won't notice the price discrepancy, or if you do, it will be at the register, when you're too attached to the item to abandon it. The next time you're browsing the sale rack, check the sign for extra-small print, and be prepared to return an item if it's full price.
The Gimmick:A labyrinth-like floorplan
Your Strategy:Ever feel like you're lost in a maze as you wander between departments? That's not accidental. "If a store can delay you by just 15 seconds, you're likely to spend more," says Lindstrom. To avoid getting caught in this trap, note where the registers are located before you shop, and make a bee-line for them once you've decided what you want to purchase.
The Gimmick:Dressing rooms equipped with flattering lighting and upbeat music.
Your Strategy:Well-executed lighting will make your skin look clear while specialty mirrors reflect a slimmer you. Pair that with high-energy music and you might just start to feel as young, hip and slender as you were in high school—and those good feelings might be enough to get you to buy. If you're truly sold on something, then by all means, buy it. But if you're on the fence, put the item on hold and think about it overnight. Or take a photo of yourself wearing it and ask a friend their opinion. "Photos are more honest than anything," says Lindstrom. "And your friend won't be seduced by the music and mirrors and is likely to give you an honest and reliable recommendation."
The Gimmick:Special displays of full-priced goods
Your Strategy:"Customers think that because there's a special display, of cereal, for example, which is typically at the end of each aisle, the item must be on sale," says Jack Taylor, a professor of retailing at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. If you're not sure whether a price is actually a money-saver, check the shelves where the product is regularly stocked to see what the store usually charges.
The Gimmick:Signs that limit the number of goods a customer can buy
Your Strategy:If a store has 2,000 packages of hot dog rolls, it doesn't make a difference to the company's bottom line if you buy five bags or 50—their intent is to sell out their stock. But if the sign says you can buy only five bags of hot dog rolls, Lindstrom says greed takes over, which makes you want to stock up. Avoid the trap by bringing a grocery list—and sticking to it.
The Gimmick:A "buy one, get one half-off" deal
Your Strategy:It's all too easy to spend more than you intended when a store advertises one of these so-called deals. But the savings don't necessarily add up. "Most of us feel obligated to take advantage of a buy-one-get-one 'deal,'" says Gault. "But on two pairs of shoes, you might only save 25% off the total price." Her rule of thumb: A sale is only worth the splurge if it brings your total price down by half.
The Gimmick:Cramped, narrow lanes leading up to the register Your Strategy: "Narrow aisles with no display shelves on either side leave customers with nowhere to offload merchandise," says Lindstrom.
The result:your arms are stacked with boxes of shoes you're considering buying, and the longer you hold on to them, the more tempting it is to purchase them. If you're having second thoughts, don't feel shy about ditching the box. The time it takes to replace it on the shelf is worth the savings.
Rewards-driven sales from the store's circulars
Your Strategy:If you base your purchases on chain drugstore circulars, you might want to double-check your receipts, says consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, who runs the consumer education website ConsumerWorld.org. A store might advertise a face lotion that's on sale for half-off, but the fine print will indicate that you pay the full price at the register and receive "store rewards" for the amount of the advertised savings. These bonus vouchers often expire quickly, and must be used in-store. As a result, you can easily end up purchasing more than you intended—or need.
The Gimmick:Regular-priced items arranged in fancy displays
Your Strategy:Similar to wholesale clubs, drugstores attempt to catch your eye by creating elaborate arrangements of products at the end of each aisle that aren't necessarily on sale. Avoid falling into the trap by price-checking the displayed item at its usual location, as Taylor suggested.
Video: How to Avoid Price Traps
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