Top 10 ways to avoid the retailer tricks that make you spend more 

Written by
Kara Gammell
Finances expert
13 September 2021
7 min read
Share article

If you’ve ever popped into a shop to pick up a few things only to leave with twice as much as you meant to, you might think you just got carried away. But the reason you’re overspending is not just a lack of self-control, it turns out that there’s a science behind why you spend more. 

Here’s how retailers use consumer psychology to encourage us to hand over our hard-earned cash – and how you can avoid falling for their tactics

1. The Scarcity Effect 

The trick:

One thing that shoppers hate is missing out on a deal. 

Have you ever felt pressured to purchase more of the same product simply because the stock is running low? Or maybe you bought something on impulse because you panicked that you’d miss out on the sale price? 

Retailers do it on purpose and it’s easy to see why. 

Take Amazon, for instance.  The web giant uses a stock notice to alert users when the product we’re browsing gets low on stock. 

What’s more, its Lightning Deals all feature countdowns which create a sense of urgency for us shoppers. 

This is called the Scarcity Effect and means that when we think that something's running out we want it more. 

The fix:

Scarcity marketing plays on the psychological effects of urgency, low supply and high demand. Resist the urge to panic buy. Stock levels will rise and fall – your bank balance doesn’t need to. 

Thanks to the Scarcity Effect, when we think that something's running out we want it more 

2. Shop layouts that suck you in 

The trick:

Research from the Marketing Science Institute shows that 70% of what we buy in the supermarket is unplanned. Chances are, the supermarket has had an influence. 

One way we get sucked into spending more is putting profitable products such as flowers and fresh-baked goods near the entrance so you see them when your trolley is empty and you’re in a good mood. 

In the same way, retailers hide essential items such as milk and bread at the back of the store so you’re forced to wander through the whole store just to get your hands on them. 

Once we start walking through the ‘racetrack’-style aisles we’re conditioned to go up and down each one without stopping. 

To make matters worse, just as you’ve mastered the layout of your regular store the displays are re-arranged again and you’re back to wandering aimlessly. 

The fix:

Start your shop at the ‘wrong’ end of a supermarket or department store, or in the middle of the less exciting aisles. You’re likely to spend less. 

3. Don’t be forced to slow down 

The trick:

Some stores vary the size of the floor tiles in order to make you spend more. 

Smaller ones will make the trolley wheels click more often, which fools us into thinking that we’re going too quickly. Because of this we slow our pace to a browse, usually in the aisle with the most expensive products. 

The fix:

Keep an eye on the shop floor and notice if you’re being nudged to slow your pace. 

In supermarkets, the amount we buy is directly related to the size of our shopping trolley 

4. “Eye height” is “buy height” 

The trick:

Manufacturers pay a premium to place their brand-name products at eye or chest level on shop shelves. 

What’s more, our children are targeted too. Their eye level is where you’ll find sugary cereal, sweets and children’s magazines. 

The fix:

When looking for deals, look at the top and bottom of shelves as this is where lower-priced stock is hidden. 

5. Size really does matter 

The trick:

In the same way a goldfish will grow to fill its container the amount we buy is directly related to the size of our shopping trolley. 

According to Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, when retailers doubled the size of their shopping trolleys, people bought 40% more. Yikes. 

The fix:

Grab a basket or smaller shopping trolley so you’re less likely to overspend. 

6. Special offers that don’t add up 

The trick:

While many products are discounted at the supermarket there are many times where these deals are a case of “too good to be true” – and we are none the wiser. 

For instance, which do you think is a better deal: “Buy one get one free” or “50% off two items?” 

According to a study done by researchers at the University of Minnesota, most people would prefer the first option, even though the two options are identical. 

Shoppers, they found, much prefer getting something extra free to getting something cheaper. 

Fact is, most of us aren’t good at fractions so can’t spot a bad deal easily. 

The fix:

Do some quick maths on the shop floor and check the unit price on the sticker (like ‘price per 100ml’). That way you can compare like-for-like. 

In most supermarkets food will be clearly priced by weight or volume across all stores to make it easier to compare products and spot the best deal. 

7. We love the middle 

The trick:

When shopping for a nice bottle of wine or a flat-screen TV, few of us actually buy the most expensive on offer, or the very cheapest. 

We tend to go for something in the middle of the price range and the retailers know this, stacking shelves to put the items that are most profitable in the easiest place to reach. 

Shoppers are more likely to choose the middle option of a selection set rather than the extreme options. 

The fix:

Know your budget, and stick to it. 

Three-quarters of people who are offered a sample will accept it 

8. Same goods, same shop, but different prices 

The trick:

Some retailers will price the same goods at different prices, depending on where they are placed in the store. 

If you're buying snacks such as nuts or dried fruit, they'll be much more expensive in the snack area than in the baking products aisle, while cotton buds may be much cheaper in the baby aisle than in the cosmetics aisle. 

The fix:

Try and check your options before you hit the checkouts. 

9. Free samples can cost you 

The trick:

Few of us can turn down free food. But why are retailers literally giving away their goods? 

According to online magazine The Atlantic, free samples are a sure-fire way to boost sales, with some retailers reporting a 2,000% sales increase on products where they use freebies. 

It’s not that the products themselves are irresistible, but we feel obligated to be nice to the employee who has just given us free food. 

The fix:

If you’re offered a free bite to eat, give it some time and go somewhere else in the store. The temptation should pass. 

10. Spot the fix 

The trick:

From a retailer’s point of view, having a consistent price makes financial sense – you don’t need to pay staff to price the stock and it can move straight from the warehouse shop floor. 

But this simple branding idea is the reason that pound stores are so popular. 

This creates an ‘environment of cheapness’ where shoppers feel more relaxed because everything now seems affordable. 

According to consumer psychologists, this triggers chemicals in the brain which create a feeling of happiness causing shoppers to spend more. 

The fix:

Ask yourself “Is this really that good a deal?” before you hand over a penny. 

3 things to do right now...

Marketing emails are proven ways to encourage impulse shopping. Take a few minutes and unsubscribe from company emails with Unlistr. Simply sign up and it scans your inbox and compiles a list of your email subscriptions, which you can edit. 

If you regularly overspend on your food shop, analyse what you really eat before you next head out.  Stick a supermarket receipt on your fridge and for anything that gets thrown away without being eaten, cross it off the receipt. By the end of the week what you crossed off is the food you wasted. What’s left is the only food you need to buy. 

Next time you feel the urge to splash the cash, close your eyes and imagine a stranger holding the item in one hand and the same amount of in cash in the other. Ask yourself which one would you choose? Most often it’s the cash and it helps keep it in your bank. 

Please share this with someone who'd benefit from it.

Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.