As someone who shops quite often, I pride myself on being able to figure out when stores are trying to trick me into spending more money. That said, it doesn’t mean those tricks don’t work anyway sometimes. Like anyone else, I love a good “deal,” even when I know said deal isn’t always as great as it seems.
One obvious example of how sneaky stores and retailers bribe us into spending more money is the existence of coupons. On the surface, coupons seem like a way to save money, and in some cases they definitely are – coupons for things you actually do need (like food or a car part) can be genuinely great and helpful. But that coupon for $10 off your next purchase at Macy’s that just came in the mail? That coupon is literally luring you to Macy’s, where you will almost definitely buy something you don’t need, because you have $10 off and you feel like you should.
It’s helpful to know how stores are tricking you so that you can outsmart them – although that is pretty hard. But hey, you should be aware of the mind games being played on you the second you walk into a department store! Here are the 20 sneaky ways stores are tricking you into spending more money:
1. Online stores offer free shipping.
Stores are well aware that shipping costs are the worst things about online shopping. Some stores, like Nordstrom, offer free shipping on anything, all the time – and so this is the exact reason I look for what I need on Nordstrom’s site before anything else. See? They’ve tricked me into spending money there. There are even points where I’ll see something that I don’t need, then think, “free shipping, so what’s the harm?” and I get it.
The other way stores trick you with this is by offering free shipping promotions if you spend a certain amount of money. You probably see these all the time: “spend $50, get free shipping!” When you add something that is $42 to your cart and realize you could lose the shipping cost if you get up to $50, it’s almost impossible to find something you want that is only a few dollars extra – so you end up ordering something you don’t need. Usually what happens is you lose the $5 shipping cost, but end up spending $25 on a new top. So… you just got tricked.
2. There’s a free gift with purchase.
Victoria’s Secret is one of those stores that has a great marketing campaign where they almost always offer a free gift with purchase. One thing they do that I love is offer free beach bags with swimwear purchases quite often. For me, this ends up usually working in my favor, because I would buy the bathing suit regardless and I get a free bag out of it. But I’ll admit that there have been times I’ve liked the free bag so much that I’ve ordered something I didn’t need just to get it. You’re still sort of saving money, but they’ve basically just tricked you into spending it in the first place.
The other way they get you with this is by putting a dollar value on the free item. So, they’ll say, “Free bag with purchase! ($75 value!)” The second you see that you’re getting a $75 bag for free, you want it more, because it seems like an amazing deal. And so you find something else you want, but probably don’t need.
3. Pricing items with change rather than rounding up.
There’s a reason stores price things oddly sometimes, like if an item is $9.99 instead of $10 or $19.89 instead of just $20. It’s because that little change amount there tricks us into thinking we’re spending less than we are. Logically, if we think about it, we know it’s a trick, but it still works.
4. Any kind of “buy one get one” sale.
I’m a sucker for these sales. They offer them at American Eagle a lot – “Buy one shirt, get one free!” This automatically makes me want the shirt, because I can get two for the price of one! But usually, I don’t need the shirt. And I’m not alone. The frustrating thing to remember is that the store isn’t losing money doing that. Oftentimes the markup price is high enough so that you’re not really saving. Sometimes it will work out in your favor, but most of the time, it’s just a way to get you to spend money you wouldn’t have spent if the sale wasn’t happening.
5. Online stores use targeted advertisement to be everywhere, all the time.
If you shop online a lot, you’ll notice that, sometimes, a clothing item or accessory you recently looked at shows up on your Facebook as an ad. The store you go to all the time shows up first in your search. It shows up as an ad on your Instagram. It’s following you! Stores do this on purpose, to remind you of that thing you wanted and didn’t buy. Or to remind you that you bought something there and liked it, and you should go back!
6. The existence of loyalty programs.
Almost every store out there offers some type of loyalty program. These loyalty programs offer special coupons and discounts for cardholders, and often allow you to collect points, which lead to “prizes.” For example, I have a Bloomingdales loyalty card. Once I reach a certain number of points, I get, like, $25 off. The special coupons and discounts offered to cardholders lure shoppers in when they don’t really anything (like any coupon) and even more so because they make you feel ~special.~
The points program gets you in even more. You want to spend enough to get your gift! But most of the time, these points programs are intense. I need to get to 500 points on my Bloomingdales card before getting any discount. So… I spend $500 just to get $25 off a future purchase. Seems worth it. I mean, if you genuinely shop there all the time, it is worth it! But usually, it just pulls you.
7. Clearance racks are in the back of the store and are literally designed to be messy and disorganized.
You know how sale racks are always incredibly messy and annoying to look through? They literally are designed to be messy. This encourages shoppers to look at things they wouldn’t normally look at. And since the items are on sale, they’re much more likely to buy them. It can also cause shoppers to get frustrated, say “eff clearance,” and buy something full price.
Clearance racks are also usually located in the back of the store so that you have to walk through and see the full price merchandise first.
8. Their array of impulse buys near the checkout line.
Almost every single store offers impulse buys. These are the little items by the checkout line that you look through as you’re waiting to pay. These are one of the biggest ways stores make money. Impulse buys are things you do not need, but they’re there, and you’re about to pay, so why not!
9. Sales in general.
In case you couldn’t tell, sales in general are sneaky. They lure you into the store with the pretense of saving money – meanwhile, you might not have ever gone if there wasn’t a sale! If you have to buy a black shirt, and you find one on sale, then yes, you just saved money. But consider this: last night I went to the mall to get a red dress I needed for an event. I ended up in Lord & Taylor, which is having an amazing sale right now, and I bought a skirt I did not need and wouldn’t have bought if it wasn’t on sale.
10. Whenever they say you can “spend XX amount, get XX off.”
I swear to god, some stores mark clothing and accessories at prices that can never lead up to the price you need to get money off. Express sends these coupons all the time – “Spend $50, get $10 off! Spend $100, get $20 off! Spend $250 get $75 off!” These three deals on one coupon get you in the store, and even convince you to spend more than the minimum. But you can’t find just one item that is $50, you’re forced to buy something else you don’t even need just to get there. It’s silly and most of the time, you end up not saving much.
11. They move customers right to left through the store.
Okay, so I’m not sure exactly how stores do that, but they somehow get most shoppers to go right to left through the store. The items you want the most are generally on your right side. This is because most people are right-handed, and so they’re playing to where your eye lands naturally. Sneaky!
12. Offering great return policies.
A great return policy makes it more likely that you’ll spend the money because you know you have the option to easily return it if necessary – and most of the times, you’ll never get around to doing that. For example, Nordstrom offers free shipping and free returns. They also will allow you to return basically anything, even if you don’t have a receipt, even if it’s years later, even if you’ve worn it. Knowing this, shoppers are more likely to purchase the item they’re iffy about, because they feel like they have the option to bring it back if they change their mind. And like I said, they usually don’t, because returning items is actually a hassle.
13. Playing slow, relaxing music.
Studies have shown that you’re more likely to shop if you feel relaxed, with slow music on. It makes you more in the mood to browse rather than to marathon run through the store grabbing only what you need.
14. Making stores smell warm and inviting.
You’re obviously more likely to stay in a store longer if it smells great – if it smells bad, you just want to get out of there. Stores know this, and so they come up with lovely scents just for shoppers. They know how to use scent to their advantage. Remember when Abercrombie & Fitch were enjoying their huge moment in the early 2000s? Part of their marketing strategy was suffocating shoppers with the smell of their nice, but overpowering, cologne and perfume. Shoppers knew that this scent was a sign you were in Abercrombie – it was basically a status symbol. See what they did there?
15. Messy store layouts.
You’ll notice that most stores have a rather messy layout. One thing that is consistent is that new items are in the front – obviously this pulls people in. But everything else is just a mess. Forever 21 and H&M are notorious for this, with items all over the place and no real pattern in place anywhere. Department stores do it too. Just yesterday, I saw that Lord & Taylor had women’s clothes on the first floor, then women’s plus and petite lines on the second floor, and women’s formalwear on the third floor. Wouldn’t it make sense to dedicate an entire floor to just women’s clothing?! It would, but if they did that, they wouldn’t also have the opportunity to make women walk through home decor, men’s clothing, beauty, and shoes too – making it more likely that they’ll buy something they didn’t go there for.
16. Putting essential items near non-essential items.
Grocery stores do this a lot. You’ll notice that milk and eggs, two vital necessities, will be next to things like pudding and Jello, which are not vital necessities. Clothing stores do this with socks or underwear, things like that. You go in to get something, and before you know it, you’re surrounded by things you don’t need, but want.
17. Placing the restrooms in the back of the store.
A lot of department stores have their own restrooms. When you enter the store to only use the restroom, you have to walk through aisles and aisles of clothes to get there – sometimes they’re even a floor up. They do this on purpose, to make you spot things you didn’t even know you wanted.
18. Using signs that imply “sale” but don’t actually mean sale.
Sometimes stores market items to make it seem like they’re on sale when they aren’t. “Buy two shirts for $20!” may seem like a sale, but if you look closely, you might see that the shirts are always $10 each, so it’s really not a deal. They’re tricking you!
19. When they offer cash promotions.
A lot of stores will do promotions like, “Spend $50, get a $25 cash card for next time!” This makes it seem like stores are literally giving money away. And you want that free money! So you spend the $50 so you can get it. Here’s the thing: stores know that you usually won’t use these cash cards, or that you’ll lose them or forget about them. They also often make the period to use them short (like a day or a week) so you don’t have much time to use them. And sometimes, to get REALLY sneaky, they make these promotions available on the weeks they’re trying to get rid of old merch or having big sales. So really, you’re not saving, and they’re winning.
20. Major sale restrictions in fine print.
Macy’s sends a million coupons a week, which seems great. But if you look at the giant paragraph of fine print on the opposite side, you’ll notice most things are restricted, namely all the expensive brands. If you don’t look, you go into the store, pick out something pricey because you think you’re getting a deal, then go buy it. By the time you realize you can’t use the coupon, you’ve fallen in love and decide it’s worth it. Annnnnd… they got you.
Did you know about these tricks to get you to spend money? What did we forget to include? Let us know in the comments.