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.