Updated on 09.17.14

How Department Stores Trick You Into Spending More

Trent Hamm

A goodEver noticed how you go to the store to just pick up one thing, then by the time you get back to the checkout aisle, you have five or six things in your cart and a bigger bill than you could have possibly anticipated? This happens over and over again because department stores (and let’s not forget that grocery stores use many of the same techniques) use an array of techniques to get you to pick up these items. By itself, each technique isn’t very strong – it’s the use of them in combination that is powerful.

Here’s a list of fifteen of the best tricks. Following the list (yep, way down there), I’ll give ten ways to combat these techniques so you can get in and get out with your finances still intact.

1. Shopping carts. Most department store customers enter the store only intending to buy an item or two, but the shopping carts are right there by the entrance and oh wouldn’t it be convenient to have it so I can lean on it a bit while walking around and also put my stuff in it? The cart has a huge bin compared to the size of most items for sale in the store, making it psychologically easy to toss in an item you don’t need – after all, there’s room for plenty more, right?

2. Desirable departments are far away from the entrance. Most of the items I go to a department store to buy, like light bulbs and laundry detergent, are located many, many aisles from the entrance. This means I spend my time walking by a lot of consumer goods on my way to find the item I actually want. Since these consumer goods are effectively marketed to me, there’s a good likelihood that I’ll spy something that I don’t necessarily need and toss it in the cart.

3. The toy section is far, far, far away from the entrance. Naturally, if I take my son to the store, he wants to visit the toy section. He gets all excited and starts shouting “Ball! Ball!” to me when we go in, because he remembers the enormous plastic balls in the toy section. I tell him that if he’s good, we’ll go look at the balls, and at the end of the trip, I usually make my way over there. What do I see? Lots of children in that area, which means that there are parents that follow their children.

4. Impulse-oriented items are near the checkouts. Stores stock the latest DVD releases and “froth” magazines there, along with overpriced beverages and candy. Why? Because people leaving the store are thirsty, and they’re also going to be standing in line for a bit, which is the perfect place to hook them with some entertainment options.

5. The most expensive versions of a product are the ones at eye height. Take a look sometime at the arrangement of different choices for a particular product, such as laundry detergent. Almost every time, the most expensive options per unit are placed at eye height, so that you see them first as soon as you enter the aisle. The bulk options and better deals are usually on the bottom shelf.

6. Items that aren’t on sale are sometimes placed as though they are on sale (without saying the word “sale”). I noticed this over and over again with diapers; the department store would display a rack of them with a huge sign above them displaying the price – but it would be the same price I paid for them a week ago. Unsurprisingly, the diapers displayed like that were always the most expensive, “premium” diapers.

7. Commodity items (like socks) are surrounded by non-commodity items (like shirts and jeans). If I’m just looking to buy some new socks, I have to traverse through a number of racks full of different types of clothing in the clothing section just to reach them. Why? If my mind is already open to the idea of buying clothing, I would be more likely to look at other clothing items.

8. Slickly-packaged items alternate with less slickly-packaged items. Look carefully at an aisle of, say, potato chips. The ones with the bright and slick packaging are more expensive, in general, which isn’t surprising. But notice that there generally isn’t a section of just inexpensive chips – in most stores, they’re sandwiched in between more expensive items. If there is a section of just inexpensive items, they’re down by your feet (think about the inexpensive, bagged cereals at your local supermarket).

9. Stop, stop, stop. You only add items to your cart if you stop, right? So stores are designed to maximize the number of stops you have to make: aisles in which only two carts can fit, colorful and attractive layouts, escalators, and my favorite of all, sample vendors. Even if it’s not conscious to you, every time you stop moving in a store, you increase your chances of putting something into your cart.

10. Staple items are placed in the middle of aisles, nonessential and overpriced items near the end. Why? If you enter an aisle to get a “staple” item (i.e., a high-traffic item), you have to go by the other items twice; once on the way in and once on the way out. That gives these items two chances to make their pitch at you with their packaging – and increases the chances that something will find its way into your cart.

11. Prices are chosen to make comparison math difficult. Instead of selling the 100 ounce detergent for $6 and the 200 ounce detergent for $11 (making it easier to figure out the better deal), they sell the 100 ounce for $5.99 and the 200 ounce for $10.89. Hey, look, they’re basically the same, right, because ten is half of five? Not even close.

12. Stuff in bins isn’t always a bargain. Higher-end stores will sometimes put items in “bins” to emulate the bargains found at cheaper stores, but the prices are still quite high – they just use the visual cue of a “bargain store” to make you think it is a bargain.

13. High markup items are made to look prestigious. If you see something in a glass case that has lots of space around it, your gut reaction is to believe that it is valuable and prestigious to own, and for many people it can be attractive like a light to a moth. The truth is that these items typically have tremendous markup – you’re literally just buying an idea, not a product.

14. The most profitable department is usually the first one you run into. Ever noticed that at Younkers, JC Penney, Kohl’s, and such stores, the cosmetic department is front and center? That’s because it’s very profitable, and by putting it in a place where people walk by time and time again, they’re more prone to making a purchase on an item with a very big markup.

15. Restrooms and customer services are usually right by the exit or as far from the exit as possible. Why? If you need to use either one in the middle of a shopping journey, you have to walk by a lot of merchandise to reach the needed service, thus increasing your chances for an impulse buy.

Want to see more? Look at this presentation on the art of department store layouts to get an idea of how much thought goes into making sure you buy more, particularly those items that are marked up a lot. I didn’t even get into some of the more complex techniques, such as sensory marketing, which are more subtle and harder to avoid.

freedomHow Can I Fight Back?

Is there any wonder why people end up buying more than they need, or buying sizes that are poor deals? With an array of techniques at their disposal, large box retailers can make a mint. Had enough? Here are ten things you can do to fight back against these techniques.

1. Don’t use a shopping cart unless you need it. A shopping cart, most of the time, is just a place to put stuff you don’t need. If you’re carrying it, you’re a lot more likely to consider whether or not it’s a worthwhile purchase.

2. Make a shopping list and stick to it. A shopping list makes you focus on the items you intended to buy; without it, you are much more prone to wandering and stumbling into “great buys” that you don’t really need.

3. Look at nothing but the prices and sizes. That’s all the information you really need – everything else is marketing. Find the one that has the best price for its size, get that one, and move on.

4. Start at the back and work towards the front. If this is an option at all for you based on the store layout, do it. When you go in, head directly for the furthest item, then progress back towards the checkout aisles. If you do it the other way, you’re prone to walk more slowly and tiredly towards the front after your shopping is done, leaving you open to lots of impulse buys on the way.

5. Always look at the bottom shelf first. If you’ve found the section you want, start looking at the bottom shelf first. This is usually where the better per-unit deals are.

6. Don’t stop unless you’re actively selecting an item. Displays are designed to beg you to stop for a moment and just look, which is often enough to get you to pick out the item. Even if something looks interesting, keep walking … you can study it as you go past and make up your mind later about the item.

7. Never go by an item twice unless absolutely necessary. If you go down an aisle, start at one end and continue all the way out the other. Walking by an item once lets it sink into your short-term memory, giving just a hint of familiarity when you walk by it again, sometimes just enough to convince you to buy it.

8. Carry a pocket calculator – or know how to use the one on your cell phone. Do the math yourself to find out what the best buy is, because stores try to choose numbers that make drawing false conclusions quite easy.

9. If you don’t know for sure that it is a good deal, don’t buy because you think it is a good deal. Stores use all kinds of visual cues to make you think something is a bargain when it’s really not (like the bin trick mentioned above). Don’t buy anything because it’s a “deal” unless you’re sure that it really is an excellent bargain – just walk away.

10. At the checkout, rethink everything you put in your cart – and don’t hesitate to hand an item to the cashier and say you changed your mind. Many people seem to have a guilt, or obligation, to buy an item that they’ve put into their cart. Don’t. You’re the customer – you have the right to choose whether to buy. If you find something you don’t want to buy, tell the cashier and don’t buy it.

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  1. Zachary says:

    And the best possible way to flight back:

    Grow some will power and just don’t take the bait.

  2. Anne says:

    Here’s another thing that really curbs excess shopping: I don’t have a car, so I can only buy what I can carry in two hands to the bus. Maybe more shoppers should take the bus ;)

  3. Rob says:

    When I was in Paris a local supermarket was segregated into two sections, one for brand name products and one for generics. Perhaps it was a subtle European psychological move so people would avoid venturing into the “cheap” side of the store, but as a broke American student it was quite convenient :)

  4. christine says:

    I’ve seen stores who make it even more difficult to compare prices – one item will be in ounces and another in cups or quarts. If you don’t remember the conversion, you’re out of luck!

  5. Budget your trip! Get money from the ATM before you go and only carry the cash into the store. Leave your credit card, debit card and checkbook at home. That way you can’t overspend!

    Also, turn it into a game. See how many things you can pass up.

  6. Jonathan says:

    A friend of mine who had no money used to go to Target and fill up a whole shopping cart with everything that caught her eye, then hide the cart in the back of the store without buying anything.

    I often pick stuff out then leave it at the store and see if I can remember what I wanted the next day/weeek/month. If I’m still thinking about it later I’ll go back and actually buy it. I’ve probably saved $100,000 over the years using this method if you count the cars, bikes, apartments, etc that I initially couldn’t live without and eventually couldn’t remember

  7. Melissa says:

    When I am undecided on an item for whatever reason, I put it in my basket and walk around the store, finishing up my errands. This gives me time to think if I really need that item, if it’s a good deal, if I have enough money, etc. Then, before I check out, I re-look at all my items and decide which I’m going to buy. Helps me cut out a lot of “junk” purchases that way.

  8. Toby says:

    I was shopping at Lord & Taylor a few months ago for new jeans and I didn’t take notice of any of the things in this list. I mean, the perfume counter is near the front of the store, but I’m a guy, so I just walk past it. The sales person helped me find a good pair of jeans, and even though I didn’t end up buying it, the sales person recommended a brand that was actually cheaper than the one I had picked up.

    Anyway, not all department stores are evil!

  9. Karl says:

    My favorites are the 2 for $5 type of specials, no matter what kind of product it is. You would never by 1 for $2.50 but somehow because they’re 2 for $5 it suddenly becomes appealing.

  10. Brian says:

    I’m in the same boat as Anne. I don’t have a car so when I visit the store, I have to use the hand basket and the moment it gets heavy, I have to leave or reevaluate my priorities.

    I also use the store’s grocery delivery service if possible. It can actually take me a little longer to shop online than going to the store, but I’m far more likely to stick to my list and not be distracted. The two in my area (Safeway & Peapod) also allow me to shop only what’s on special that week, making it easier to save.

  11. Al says:

    I’m shocked that anyone would consider having the toy section in the back of a store to be part of a money-grabbing plot by stores. Certainly if they wanted to encourage more kids to see, and therefore have a tantrum over, some toys, then they would make every person pass through the toys on their way in or better yet, at checkout. Instead, having toys in the back is a convenience for me as a parent because I can easily avoid that section by not going all the way back, or cutting through some non-enticing section, like clothes or automotive. For some reason, I suspect that if the toy section was in the front, you would have listed that location as a tool for the stores also.

  12. Jirah says:

    Sorry to nitpick on #11 – “ten is half of five” ?

  13. Vera says:

    I avoid all department stores and malls as much as possible. HOWEVER, my daughter might need something, so I’ll select a store, i.e., Kohl’s, that is not tempting to do any impulse shopping whatsoever, except for the item in need. I’ll buy that item and run out of the store as fast as we can, because it is so depressing and unimaginative. So that’s what I try to do–pick out stores that no one in our family can stand to be in longer than it takes to grab an item, pay for it, and make a run for the exit.

  14. Zach B. says:

    I’ve found that a lot of people need to learn to window shop/browse. A good method for doing this is leaving your cash/checks/credit/debit/gold bullion/bearer bonds at home and going to the store(s) you like or want to find more about and just look around. You will familiarize yourself with the merchandise available and where they hide the bargains, as well as develop a plan for shopping there. Taking something to take notes with (like per unit prices for comparison) is bonus. But mostly just look, so you will get used to passing by a display and not buying anything, but not feeling like you can’t look.

  15. Ter M. says:

    Regarding #1: I’ve never seen a shopping cart in a department store. This may be regional, or depend on where you shop.

  16. Peter says:

    With #5, the brand name items are at more desirable location (eye level) because the companies pay the stores for product placement. If they did not, then the stores would mostly likely place their store brand in this location. I don’t remember the logic, but there was an candidate for the PhD in economics who showed that consumers actually benefit by having the name brand products in a better location.

  17. Michael says:

    Comparision pricing. The nice thing is that in Canada stores are required to put the unit price per 100ml / 100g etc. on the price tag on packaged goods.

    So even if they play their games a close look at the label tells you right away which one is the better deal.

  18. Debbie says:

    To christine: Another place you can check on food is the nutrition information. Often the information on serving size and servings per package will give you another unit you can work with.

  19. Chris says:

    One time my wife and I were shopping in a department store and we had our daughter with us and she was in the stroller. We had to go to the floor below the one we were on and we had to use the elevator. When we got to the floor below, the elevator doors opened and we were IN the ladies’ shoe department. The elevator didn’t open to a walkway that went PAST the shoe department, when you walked out you were smack dab in the middle of shoes. I thought that was a very strategic placement.

    In other news, I can’t believe you didn’t mention the department store credit cards and the cashier people that make you say like 5 times that no you don’t have or need a credit card from their store, and no, you’re not interested in opening one, even if it means you would get another 15% off of your purchase today… Don’t get me started on that one.

  20. I’m not sure how many people know it, but the store doesn’t decide where allt he products are placed. The manufactures of higher priced items pay to be put in special displays and in obnoxious positions, including at the end of the row. After fitting these in, the store has to just fit everything else around it.

  21. Arlene says:

    I wouldn’t call myself a Rhodes scholar but I can hazard a few guesses as to why the socks would be stashed there among the clothes. Although why they aren’t with the detergents and hardware is a mystery mankind has yet to resolve.

  22. MissGoldBug says:

    Great Post!

    I consider myself quite frugal and savvy in the grocery store, but I find myself still falling for some of their tricks! Thanks for the thoughtful well written antidote!

    Best, MGB

  23. shopperee says:

    About Trick #6 – When I used to work for a major “K” retailer, we would see items where the “on sale” price was supposed to be equal to or higher than our price. We always sold them at the regular or lower price – even though it confused our customers (“Why are you selling these paper towels for $1.27 when the ad says they should be $1.34 – are they the right ones?”) The reason was very simple. The advertisement circulars were printed on a regional basis, and our locally-adjusted and/or competition-adjusted price was better than the regionally defined advertised sale price. What I am trying to say is that it is not as simple as saying that the retailer is trying to trick you in all circumstances – there may be other reasons. Oh, and we did notice that things like the paper towels in the example given sold A LOT better when they were advertised than when they were not – even though the price was the same.

  24. bri says:

    I loved this article… I already abide by most of the suggestions in it (use a basket not a cart, use a calculator if I can’t do the math in my head, religiously make lists), but it’s good to see someone come up with a list of comprehensive ideas.

    A few other ways to save money: Don’t fall for the “1 for $6, 2 for $10” scheme into buying things you don’t need, just to “save” a dollar. In this example you’re spending $4 to “save” $1. Only buy what you absolutely require. In that respect, I came up with a system to resist impulse / sale buys when I’m shopping. Rank every item NOT on your list as follows: Want it, Need it, or MUST HAVE it. Then, you can only buy the “Must Haves”, and only if it fits within your budget (and by paying cash/debit, not with credit). This means if you’re buying your list necessities with credit card, the impulse Must Have should be paid as a separate transaction with cash/debit. I accept that this will not work for everyone because some people are not disciplined enough to be honest about items they Must Have and what fits in their budget. But for anyone honest, it should work great.

  25. bri says:

    Regarding the poster who wrote, “I’ve never seen a shopping cart in a department store. This may be regional, or depend on where you shop.”

    Might seem that way, but last time I checked, Sears, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Target, Wal-Mart, and others all have shopping carts. And all have “departments”

  26. John Mikesell says:

    Everyone in my family including the chocolate lab calls me a cheap-skate, so I’m reading your article, pounding the table, and yelling “Right On!” But, come on now, picking on the location of the bathrooms is a cheap shot. People usually rush from their shopping cart to the bathroom and back–who’s going to browse when one has got to go? Face it, bathrooms must cost money to maintain and are therefore located to take up the least prime selling space possible, which is always on the opposite side of the store from where one is shopping. My impression is that stores would prefer not to have bathrooms at all–and stores in shopping malls more often than not take advantage of the mall bathrooms to avoid them altogether. But regardless of the location, I appreciate it when a store has a nice clean bathroom, and I’ll hand the owners any additional revenue they can generate by locating the bathroom smartly.

  27. Jenn says:

    I found your article very interesting. I find that your article assumes most people aren’t smart enough to do things like math (unit prices, realizing that 2 for $6 aren’t sales, etc.), or that they just lack basic willpower not to buy things they don’t really need. As someone who used to have quite a shopping problem, while I find your article informative, I don’t find many of your tips helpful. It’s a simple matter of deciding not to buy something – and in the end, that frees up more money to potentially treat yourself to something more expensive in the long run. Your article takes the power out of the consumer’s hands and makes it very easy for a shoppper to blame the big, evil store for “tricking” them into buying things they really didn’t want.

    And specifically regarding your potato chips example, I’d rather see all of my like items together, such as all potato chips, then all nacho chips, then all cheese puffs, rather than all brand names and then all generics. It makes things easier to find, and easier to compare the store’s generic offering.

  28. John says:

    Blueberries. It took me years to figure out this simple trick. When me and my wife would find blueberries on sale we would buy them up! But as fresh fruit they would not last very long so we had to eat them up as fast as possible.

    Now that my wife has died and I am still hooked on blueberries, I found a new way to keep my blueberries longer. I freeze them. There is no special treatment needed.

    Just wash them in their little container and freeze them. The modern frost-free freezers will wick the moister away. And then you can keep the berries for a long time.

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