Stores get us to buy without even thinking, and we all fall for it. Learn how they do it and take back control over impulse spending.
Check your shopping list. We bet it doesn’t include “pick up an impulse purchase.” Now, say you’re at the mall to pick up some new socks and a new pair of $140 sneakers follows you home. You probably don’t say to your friends, “Check out this unplanned purchase I made today!” That could be why we prefer to re-brand our impulse buys as “treating yourself,” or part of “retail therapy,” or going out getting yourself “a little something.” It’s not just you. According to a 2015 creditcards.com survey, eighty-four percent of us make impulse purchases on a regular basis. But the occasional splurge won’t put you in the poorhouse, right? You’re not routinely dropping, say, five thousand dollars on a luxury watch. Well, the reality is, Americans spend Rolex-level amounts on these impulse buys every year. In a 2018 survey by slickdeals.net, the average U.S. consumer spends $5,400 on impulse buys annually! The point isn’t to be a shopping-killjoy. We’re not going to judge which impulse purchases are good or bad, needed or not needed. But at the very least, we should be able to rate every purchase as smart or “less-than-smart.” We probably can’t stop all impulse spending, but it’s the best idea for our financial health that we try to contain it. A good first step is to understand the buttons retailers try to push when we walk the aisles.
A Peek Into Retail’s Playbook
Why do so many “On Sale” signs feature the color red? Consumer research has shown that colors are interpreted by consumers in interesting ways: red creates a sense of urgency, yellow speaks to a sense of youthfulness, and black suggests luxury. Retailers leverage these colors to drive an emotional response. The industrial marketing complex has spent decades refining every nuance of the shopping experience. They guide you where to walk, where to slow you down, how to disorient you and distract you – all to the goal of juicing sales. So, let’s crack open the playbook on the most obvious strategies that compel us to think less and buy more. Who doesn’t love a sale? The stores sure do, since sales trigger 88 percent of all impulse buys (according to a 2013 Hibbert & McGee study). The ever-present “On Sale” signs trigger a response such as “hey, this is a good deal, and one we may regret passing up”. In psychology-speak, a sale promotion plays on our “loss aversion switch”. In other words, we worry that we might feel pain later if we don’t act now. In retail lingo, it may sound more like “You’d be crazy to pass up these savings!” Let’s be real, we all know the game retailers are playing with “On Sale.” Yet they keep on using it because it keeps working. On sale is still always better than not on sale. Just don’t let them hack your decision-making process to make an impulse purchase.
The Checkout Gauntlet
Easiest to spot, but hardest to resist. You are boxed in at the checkout line and therefore vulnerable. Retailers specifically place checkout-line items (typically under $20), since they’ve determined that’s the impulse buy pricing sweet spot. If it’s the holidays, expect an ambush of sale items as you inch your way through the checkout line. You might find the gift that would be perfect for Uncle Fred. Or you’re tired, and just want to cross Uncle Fred off your list. Your call. But if you’ve made it this far, don’t give in now and buy something you’ll regret later. Location is Everything. They put vinegar on the bottom shelf because vinegar is nobody’s idea of an “impulse buy.” No item is ever randomly placed. Stores know where your eyes will point before the automatic doors even open. For example, in North America almost 90 percent of us enter a store on the right-hand side by default. Stores know this and tailor their layout to encourage us to shop in a counter-clockwise route. Then, they put more expensive products on the right, knowing that we’re slightly more apt to buy items on our right-hand side. Retail stores live by right side-shopping too. Enter the store, veer right, and you’re likely to walk into what’s known as the “power wall.” Their most profitable items populate this coveted space. So, it pays to re-check your list and ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Or am I being “power-walled?”
Resist the Hype
“On Sale” may be the most common tactic to hijack our decision making, but don’t leave a blind spot for other come-ons. We’re talking about volume-oriented deals like “Buy 2 Get a 3rd for Half Off” on, say, T-shirts. Maybe you need that many shirts, which makes it a good deal. Or maybe the 3rd shirt you picked out to get the deal never leaves your dresser, which makes it a lousy deal. Then there’s “Limited Quantities” or “Won’t Last!” better-act-soon deals. Ask yourself, is the item really and truly “limited?” Or could this deal be about moving as much merchandise as they can? Before committing to any deal, step back from the hype and consider it with your best analytical mind. How to Reign in The Urge to “Buy-Now”
Pay with Cash
It avoids putting it on the credit card, obviously. It’s also it’s a simple way to stick to a budget. For some of us, the very act of handing over physical cash takes more willpower than just swiping a card and kicking the bill down the road.
Sleep on it
It’s rare that someone we trust tells us “Sleeping on a decision is bad. Impulsive choices are the best choices.” Taking time to re-think the wisdom of a purchase has little downside. Sure, waiting means no instant gratification. On the flip side, there’s the anticipation and all the time you’ll spend looking forward to knowing it will soon be yours.
Use a Basket
If you only need a few items during a shopping trip, consider skipping the cart. Carts have almost tripled in size since the 1970s- all to let us buy more stuff. Carry a basket and you will be forced to be more choosy. If it doesn’t fit, maybe you just don’t need it!
Stick to the List
An obvious suggestion but worthy of re-mention, particularly for those with a serious impulsive shopping habit. Make a list before you hit the store and stick with it. Categorize items by “wants” and “needs” and assign each category a budget if it helps. And if the list still fails you? Consider inviting a financially disciplined companion to come along.
Avoid Shopping When Stressed
When you’re sad, mad, bored or otherwise feeling lousy, shopping to improve your mood is a dicey proposition. There is a proven connection between impulse buying and feeling good- think about when you found, finally, the exact color and style of shoes you’ve been looking for! It’s easy to see though how we can abuse the retail “pick me up.” If buying stuff just for the sake of buying stuff is your go-to method of coping with stress, that’s a problem. You’ll end up with a bunch of stuff you’ll likely never use, and an ugly credit card balance that will cost you way more in the long run.
The Closing Pitch
We hope the takeaway here isn’t to turn shopping into an “us versus them” experience. We all have to shop, but to recall what we said earlier—the goal is to shop as smart as we can. The goal is to spend when we want to spend and save when we want to save. It’s giving our better intentions a fighting chance against the subtle, psychological influence of ads, flyers, and towering displays crowned with the “Half Off!” sign.
Time to take back control of your buying decisions.