A buyers’ guide to retail shopping tricks

Megan Erickson’s recent Big Think piece called “How to Resist the Irresistible: A Buyers’ Guide to Shopping Tricks” includes a fascinating short (6:15) video interview with Lee Eisenberg, former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine and author of the 2009 book, Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.

Eisenberg observes that we consumers can resist the urge to buy something we don’t need by recognizing these four industry tricks to convince us to buy:   

1.  Setting and advertising the price with the word “only” or “just”. Studies have found that the mere insertion of these words in an advertisement will tip the balance, pushing an otherwise frugal person to buy.  A sign saying “Only $5” compared to “$5” will sell more stuff.

2.  Planting suggested reasons for why something might be useful: “The classic one is ‘101 uses‘ or, ‘buy one for a picnic; buy one to keep in the refrigerator; buy one for your car.’ You get a sense that okay, it’s pretty good to buy three of those because I’m going to get a lot of use out of it. And those illogical three-cans-for-$6 deals? Intended to move us from our original intent to buy one can for $2, towards buying three.”

3.  The Good, Better, Best Strategy:  “A retailer will offer three different versions of an item – one with lots of features that sells for a high price, a basic model that sells for much less, and one priced just in between. The idea is to sway towards seeing the mid-priced item as just right. The reason it tends to work is that we reference the value of that middle by the ones on the two extremes. Because there’s an expensive version in the store, we immediately assume, often rightly, that the store has really good things, really quality things, and the prices to prove it. At the same time, the lowest-end one seems to be a really good value, so it’s really not that high-priced; I can shop in this store pretty easily. So that middle one represents a really good value. In the trade it’s called the good, better, best strategy.”

4.  The Halo Effect:Coach is a brilliant leather retailer that measures their prices against the economic moment. They know that in times like these, people are not going to be spending many hundreds of dollars on a handbag, by and large. We might spend a bit of money on a change purse or a small wallet or something like that. So what a Coach retailer will do, and other stores will do, is often take a very expensive bag and bathe it in beautiful halogen light so that it shimmers and casts, in effect, a halo over what is placed around that expensive bag. These are the smaller, low-priced items like wallets, keychains, gloves. Compared to that bag, even a $300 cashmere sweater seems pretty cheap. Of course, it isn’t for most people. But it’s a way that the retailer has of sort of relieving us of some of the guilt that might be attached to buying a wallet that we don’t really need or a cashmere sweater that’s expensive but we can kind of afford.”

Eisenberg’s book contains some pretty interesting observations on the differences in how men and women shop. There’s an old industry axiom, for example, that women shop, but men buy.

Women, he explains, have been cast as creatures who were built to shop, who can barely tell the difference between shopping and recreation or entertainment. Men have been cast in our society as characters who hate shopping, who are “grab and goers” (where is it? I’ve got to get out of here!) or “wait and whiners” (these are the grumpy guys we see sitting at the mall on Saturday afternoons waiting for their wives when they’d rather be home watching the game on ESPN).

But what Eisenberg now believes is that male shoppers tend to be a bit more impatient than females but may really like to shop, too. And likewise, there are many women who detest shopping. (I readily confess to being one of these!) Women also  take the rap, he says, for being compulsive shoppers.  But he cites a major study that suggests there are proportionately just as many males as females who qualify for that category:

“Ask a man who has purchased 200 digital cameras if he’s a shopaholic, and he’ll tell you, ‘No, no, I’m not a shopaholic, I’m a collector!” 

Men do apparently hate to return purchases for a refund or exchange. Women buy more but return more, and have an easier psychological time returning items to the store.  Men will often not take unsuitable items back to the store (this requires yet another trip to the store, and men tend to also fear the confrontation or conflict possible during the return experience, even though most good retailers do make returns as hassle-free as possible).

Eisenberg himself admits to making the same ‘wildly inconsistent’ spending mistake over and over again: he’ll carefully research small insignificant purchases like the  USB cables or AAA batteries he needs, for example, but will then erratically and spontaneously splurge on big ticket items like expensive dinners or vacations.

8 thoughts on “A buyers’ guide to retail shopping tricks

  1. *** Women buy more but return more, and have an easier psychological time returning items to the store****

    I have a woman friend who calls that ‘Reverse Shopping’. She actually does it ‘almost’ on purpose!

    I personally don’t agree with taking advantage of a store that accepts returns easily (and I’m sure that adds a penny or two to the overall pricing) but I DO return items with much more ease than the men I know.

    • Thanks, Cave – while I too appreciate a store with a consumer-focused return policy, I don’t like the wasted time and effort to get back to the shop to enjoy that return experience!

  2. Actually, I buy more if I know I can return. For example, I may need some article of clothing, be shopping for something else, see a garment that fills the bill but have no time or inclination to stop and try it on there at the store. I might buy the two sizes most likely to fit me, (women’s clothing manufacturers keep us guessing on size), take them home, and try them on there, where I am comfortable and where I can choose the time. I may want to see if the clothing coordinates with other things in my wardrobe and of course, see if either size fits. (These days, sweat pants for ladies run about 8 inches along the floor beyond my bare feet! At 5’4”, I’m not sure where these amazon women are who fit these sweats…..) I make a decision on whether to keep one and return one, or to return both. Generally, I return one (in perfect condition). Had I not been able to return, I would never have bought the item at all. Maybe would have found it at a different store. I don’t think the store where I bought 2 and kept 1 garment would say I’d taken advantage of them. I think they are well aware of the value of that policy. They don’t make policies for any reason in the world except to make money, do they?

    • I sometimes do exactly the same thing, Bev! Some of those change rooms are so tiny – with that REALLY unflattering fluorescent lighting! When I bring returnable garments home, I can also see if they match jackets, belts or accessories already in my closet. Good luck buying those (short) sweats!

      • You know, I like to think I’m smarter than to fall for those tricks. I have a friend who says, “But Bev! It originally retailed at $______ and now it’s only $_______!!!” I say, “Friend, calm down. Look at the item. Try not to be influenced by that so called mark-down. At that kind of retail price, do you think it’s ever sold for the full amount listed there? Now what is it worth to you? If you want to buy it, what are you willing to pay? Not what is a good deal, but how much money are you willing to shell out?” So I feel pretty grounded when it comes to prices and gimmicks.

        Until a day this past week when I found myself saying, “Oh, I might as well go ahead and get 10. I’ll eat them.” I quietly rolled my eyes at myself and then bought all 10. Do you believe it? I watched myself fall for it and went through with the purchase anyway! Sigh.

        As for good, better, best and words like “only” and “just”, who knows? I am almost on my guard when I shop, but then I did buy all 10 of the whatevers, didn’t I? It really fries me, though. Why do we treat our fellow humans this way? I know it’s about money, but it’s about – well, ethics. Right? Is it right to try to trick people into buying something? And multiply that by millions of people and billions of dollars. I go to Socrates Cafe discussions. I think I’ll offer this question up for the group to take on. I’ll still be fried, though. I swear, I just get so angry over this kind of thing. Wow.

        • Time for a ittle lie-down, Bev! As this article reminds us, just being aware of these retail sales methods can help to slow us down as participants in the dance. Corporate retailers are really no different than my own parents, who ran a small corner grocery store for 20 years when I was growing up. They always put the big jars of candy and other impulse purchase items right by the cash register – because IT WORKED to help make a bit more money!

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