Updated September 27, 2019

23 Ways Retailers Trick You to Spend More Money

Why do we constantly overspend? Read on to learn how retailers are plotting to outwit us.

Most people don't realize how much thought goes into every aspect of our shopping experience. The lighting, the mirrors, the size of the shopping cart — those aren't things the average shopper thinks much about. But retailers know even small details can make us dig deeper in our pockets. As the year's largest shopping season approaches, there's no better time to take a peek at their bag of tricks. This holiday season doesn't have to leave us with a battered budget and a bunch of debt.

1. Color control

© jheffry swld (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Retailers use bright colors, like red, to grab our attention and draw us into their stores. They hope shades of orange and brown make us feel warm and cozy so we'll stay and shop. They use blue to imply trust and reliability (think police lights), which is why it's a top pick for company logos. And what color is the packaging for most skincare products? White, a color that infers simplicity, purity and honesty.

Game plan: Give retailers a dose of their own medicine. Pre-plan as many details as possible. Decide where you'll shop, who you're shopping for, what you'll buy (and won't buy) and how much you're willing spend on each item.

2. Hurry and buy

© Phil Whitehouse (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

"Everything must go." "Limited time offer." "One day only."

Retailers use those sensational phrases to make people feel in a rush to shop. Some online retailers even send out emails announcing so-called flash sales, which give shoppers only hours to buy. Creating a sense of urgency is meant to encourage impulse buying, and it works.

Game plan: A bargain is only a bargain if you get things you need or already intended to buy at a good price. Don't shop just because you're worried about missing an opportunity to save. And don't squeeze sale shopping into your budget if you don't have the money.

3. Pulling your strings with music

© Jim McDougall (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Do you enjoy the tunes at your favorite store? Maybe that's why it's your favorite. Retailers use music to help create a certain atmosphere. Research shows tempo, volume and genre can affect the type of customers a store attracts, the amount of time they spend shopping and their mood. As the holidays approach, you'll hear a lot of Christmas music because it creates a festive mood that leads to higher sales. Music can also affect shoppers' perception. One study found that playing classical music in a wine shop led customers to buy pricier bottles of vino.

Game plan: Be aware of how much time you're spending in the store. Don't let the music cause you to linger. Grab what you need and go. And if you're likely to get caught up in the tunes, bring your own music and shop while wearing your headphones.

4. Designing your shopping experience

© Random Retail (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Since most Americans are right-handed, many stores are designed to take advantage of that. Retailers' floor plans are often based on expectations that most of us will come in, flow to the right and around the store. That's why they tend to place high-margin items and catchy displays in the front and on the right-hand side, tempting us to buy something before we even reach what we're looking for. And since most people don't like to do much bending and reaching, retailers also place their most profitable items at eye level.

Game plan: Don't follow the flow or be tempted to just walk around and browse. Go straight where you need to go. And take time to look for bargains, especially on upper and lower shelves, inner aisles, and the back of kiosks and displays.

5. Retail seduction

© Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Offering low-priced teaser merchandise is a trick that businesses use to get shoppers in the mood to spend. Once you get warmed up to the idea of buying that first item, retailers know there's a good chance you'll keep spending.

Game plan: Don't let low prices encourage you to open your wallet if you're not out to shop.

6. Cent by cent

© David Goehring (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

When a price is shy of the nearest dollar, why don't stores just round up? Because research shows that Americans have a thing against whole numbers, at least when they're on price tags. We're more likely to buy an item if it's $9.98 than if it's $10. And for some reason, we find the idea of spending $199.99 more reasonable than spending $200. So retailers convince us to buy millions of products by shaving a few pennies off the tail end of the price.

Game plan: The pennies-from-the-nearest-dollar trick has been far too effective for far too long. Once you add tax, the price will be well over the next dollar. Do your own rounding, so you're well aware of what you'll have to spend if you buy the item.

7. Using kids to attack your wallet

© Harsha K R (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

It's a dirty trick, but yes, businesses are willing to use the smallest members of your family to get deeper into your wallet. The average consumer spends 30% more when shopping with kids, says author and consumer advocate Martin Lindstrom. And retailers are largely to blame. They intentionally place toys and treats where children are likely to see the merchandise, grab it and dream of owning it. Then they wait for the begging to begin, knowing the longer children hold an item, the more likely their parents are going to give in and buy it.

Game plan: Decide in advance whether you'll give your child the option to get something. And don't allow children to hold items while you shop if you don't intend to buy them.

8. The power of display

© Eva Rinaldi (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Displays draw shoppers' attention to products they may not otherwise notice. People tend to believe these creative arrangements say something about a product's quality or popularity. In reality, all a display says is a retailer has merchandise they want you to buy. Products in displays aren't necessarily the latest, trendiest or most effective. In many cases, retailers are pushing products that are most profitable or that they're having difficulty selling.

Game plan: Don't be a sucker for displays. Always use your shopping sense and compare quantity, quality and price before you spend your money.

9. One is crazy, two's a deal

© TheUglySweaterShop.com (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

We've all seen the deals: One for $39, Two for $50 or Buy Three, Get One Free. Retailers make offers like this to make you feel that buying just one item is nothing short of insane. Why pay $39 for one sweater when you can get two for only $11 more — this is what they hope you'll ask. Around the holidays, you will notice a lot of these offers as retailers expect people to try to squeeze as many gifts into the budget as possible. And hey, if the deal is right, retailers hope you may just grab one for yourself.

Game plan: Don't find reasons to buy more than you need just to get a deal. Ask yourself: how can you be saving by spending more?

10. No clear way to clearance

© m01229 (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Logic suggests retailers would show you the merchandise they're most desperate to get rid of. And clearance items should be high on that list. But that's not how it works. Clearance racks are almost always in the back of the store to make you go past lots of higher priced items first. And the clearance section is often messy and unorganized. That's done intentionally to discourage you from seeking bargains so you'll return to the front.

Game plan: Make a rule of always checking clearance racks first. And remember, to live up to that, you may need to allot extra time.

11. The feel-good effect

© nimble photography (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

You can't necessarily trust your eyes. Retailers know if you're flattered, you're more likely to spend. And they have ways of making shoppers instantly feel good. For some people, all it takes is a misleading tag that makes us think we're smaller than we really are. We may be under the illusion that the clothing will make us look slimmer when, in fact, it's the same cut as always. Lighting and mirrors can also do the trick by playing with our complexion and making us look leaner and more toned.

Game plan: Don't trust impressive results that you haven't noticed anywhere except in a dressing room. If an item seems extremely well suited for you, buy one and try it at home in good lighting before purchasing more.

12. Ready, set, gift

© Tim Hoggarth (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Around the holidays, stores start selling more gift sets. People tend to associate bundles with bargains. But you can't assume you're getting a deal or even a fair price. The items in gift sets are often sold individually, in larger units, and at lower prices. But retailers know many customers will be attracted to ready-to-give packaging and won't give much thought to how much more they are over-paying just to get a box and bow.

Game plan: Do not overpay for pretty packaging. Always compare the price of gift sets to what you would pay if you bought all the individual items.

13. Like shopping with a friend

© TownePost Network (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

As retail gets more competitive — and it always does during the holidays — salespeople tack on the charm. Between the smiles, the friendly conversation and the personalized suggestions, it often feels like you're shopping with a friend. But sales clerks are not friends. They're people doing a job. And if they do it effectively, chances are good that they will see you walk out of the store with more than you intended to buy.

Game plan: Only accept help if you need it. And don't allow sales personnel to talk you into additional merchandise just because you asked for assistance.

14. Bigger cart, bigger sales

© tara hunt (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

When you start shopping with a big empty cart, it is so tempting to fill it up. If you've gone into a big-box retailer intending to just buy a few things but drive away with a full trunk of purchases, you know what we mean. In recent years, many large retailers have made shopping baskets hard to find or few in number (if they have them at all), getting you to use their carts in order to influence the number of items you'll pick up.

Game plan: If you'll be going into a store where baskets are hard to find, consider bringing a used shopping tote to hold the few items you intend to purchase. Or try to buy only as many items as you can carry, to keep your final bill to a minimum.

15. Seasonal merchandise. How convenient!

© torbakhopper HE DEAD (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Buy a grill in the summer and the hardware store wants to sell you charcoal and hickory chips. Buy a video game around Christmas and the electronics store wants to sell you gift wrap and tape. Retailers use seasonal trends as an excuse to sell items outside their normal range. And though one-stop shopping may seem smart, it's often costly because those items are meant to appeal to shoppers looking for convenience, not competitive pricing.

Game plan: Don't ignore price for convenience. Purchase merchandise where it's cheapest.

16. Insider trading

© stefos arta (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

When you're shopping online, why do you need to know how many people purchased the shirt you're looking at? Why do online retailers tell you which items are commonly purchased with those shoes? And why do we need to know which items are most commonly sold? Retailers think we're desperate to fit in. If they make an item seem like it's flying off the shelves, they think we'll jump on it. And if they tell us other people are buying additional items to make their outfit complete, they hope we'll feel like we're missing something if we don't follow suit.

Game plan: Recognize that all those recommendations are nothing more than classic upselling. Many websites don't actually even have the capability to constantly track and update all that information.

17. Apply, swipe and save

© 401(K) 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Many stores offer discounts to customers who apply for or use their store credit cards. But have you ever wondered why retailers are so excited to lend you money? They want your information so that they can keep sending you information about the store and get you to come back during slow times. Besides being inundated with tempting offers, you also run the risk of signing up for a credit card that has a high APR, as many retail store credit cards do.

Game plan: Avoid impulsively opening credit accounts just because you're getting a one-time deal. If you're interested, take the credit application home, read the terms and think about it. And also consider other cards that could may have much lower interest rates.

18. Rewards in disguise

© Pure Metal Cards (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

If retailers want to reward you for your business, they could do it when you check out. Offers to earn rewards or coupons for a later date aren't really appreciation for your business; they're tricks to lure you back so the retailer can get more of your money.

Game plan: Avoid shopping simply because you're worried about perks going to waste. And if you're entitled to free merchandise, don't look around and spend. Just collect what you're entitled to and move on.

19. The checkout scheme

© redjar (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

What would you do without retailers to remind you of all the odds and ends you've forgotten? You would leave the store with more money. Instead of having that happen, retailers stock the checkout area with items like drinks and gum, hand sanitizers and stocking stuffers. The checkout aisle is meant to encourage impulse buying, and a lot of shoppers take the bait.

Game plan: Keep your eyes forward on the cashier when you go through the checkout aisle and don't let your eyes wander. Make it a rule never to buy items just because they're readily available and cheap.

20. Last minute budget bites

© Brad Clinesmith (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

If you aren't careful, retailers will nibble away at your budget at the very last moment. You'll be ready to pay and you'll get hit with add-on offers. Would you like a frequent shopper card? Pay $5 now and save on every purchase for a year. How about a protection plan to cover that blender or digital camera? It's just a few bucks for 12 months of coverage. And lucky you. You're entitled to free magazines, at least for now. Just cancel after the trial period if you're unhappy.

Game plan: Beware of add-on offers. Many whittle away your cash and all too often, they will prove to be your loss and someone else's gain. Before you purchase an extended warranty, see if the credit card you'll be using at the store provides you with one automatically.

21. Free expertise

© Glory Foods (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Whether it's makeup or a smartphone, product demonstrations are a great way to learn new tricks and tips. But it's also an excellent way for retailers to encourage you to buy additional products or accessories you don't need. All too often we walk in looking for advice and walk out with something we hadn't planned to buy.

Game plan: Don't feel obligated to buy something just because a salesperson spent time demonstrating a product. And if a salesperson tries to sell you something you weren't in the market for, make it rule to pass for now, and take time to consider buying the item later if you feel it's truly necessary.

22. Free shipping...with strings attached

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Online retailers know consumers are more likely to buy if they don't have to pay the shipping. So many retailers offer free shipping to shoppers who meet a minimum purchase requirement. Shoppers are often so pressed to get their orders shipped for free that they buy additional items to meet the minimum and ultimately spend more than they planned.

Game plan: Never spend more to get free shipping unless the additional item is less than the cost of shipping on your planned purchases.

23. Site-to-store lure

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Some retailers allow you to buy online and ship your order to the store, often for free. If you think this arrangement is designed just to benefit you, think again. Many people don't really pocket the money they save on shipping. Going into the store gives the retailer a second chance to sell you even more stuff.

Game plan: If you're an habitual online shopper, stay out of the store unless you'll save big on shipping. And if you do go to the store to pick up your order, eliminate the temptation to shop by leaving your money and credit cards at home (though some stores might need you to have the original credit card for "verification" during pick up).

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Michelle Smith at michelles@creditdonkey.com. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

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