6 ways retailers trick you into buying more crap

Follow these holiday shopping guidelines and you just may be able to afford a vacation in the new year

Topics: AlterNet, shopping, Retail, New York Times, Christmas, Black Friday, christmas shopping,

6 ways retailers trick you into buying more crap
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Happy holidays! Tis the season for family togetherness, holiday parties, cold weather, and for the majority of us, shopping. So this is a good time of year to take a look at why we buy what we buy, and how stores manipulate us in order to get every dollar they can out of our pockets.

Even the savviest shoppers can be tricked into buying things they don’t want or need. There’s no need to feel foolish; the retail industry spends an inordinate amount of time and money figuring out the science (yes, it is a science) of how to sell the most stuff. But it is a good idea for consumers to know what they’re going into, especially around the holiday season, when stress levels are running high and stores are packed with shoppers spending money left and right.

Though far from a comprehensive list, here are six tactics retailers use to get you to part with your hard-earned dough.

1. Holiday ploys: The scents and sounds of the season.

Journalist and author Oliver Burkeman recently wrote a piece for the New York Times on retailer manipulation around the holidays. Burkeman writes that music and scent choices can have a huge effect on shoppers. Stores play the same Christmas songs over and over again, at high volume, not because anyone likes them, but because such conditions can cause “a momentary loss of self-control, thus enhancing the likelihood of impulse purchase,” according to researchers from Penn State and the National University of Singapore.

Smells are just as important. You know how grocery stores often pump the scent of fresh-baked bread through the aisles to boost shoppers’ appetite? Burkeman writes that “Like music, smells are selected to encourage spending, not to make your shopping experience more comfortable.” Even if you don’t like that fake cinnamon holiday-candle smell, it’s still effective at making shoppers feel festive and generous – and therefore spendy – because of its strong associations with the season.

2. They trick us into staying inside as long as possible.

This is another classic retail maneuver Burkeman brings up in his piece: stash the most in-demand items at opposite ends of the store. So even if a shopper just came in for milk and bread, she has to walk past thousands of other, more expensive items, increasing the likelihood that she’ll toss some of them in her basket.

Anyone who’s ever been to an IKEA has experienced an extreme implementation of this principle. Once you enter IKEA’s labyrinthine layout, time seems to stop, and you emerge hours later with hundreds of dollars worth of furniture you didn’t even come in for. It turns out the Swedish furniture stores are literally designed to be mazes to keep shoppers in the store for as long as possible and maximize the number of items people will buy on impulse.

3. Lighting matters.

Just as holiday songs and smells can entice shoppers to buy more gifts, the lighting of a store can boost profits year-round. This Telegraph report sums up some of the tricks retailers have figured out over the years: avoiding bulbs that change the color of the merchandise in unappealing ways and dimming the lights in the lingerie department to make it feel more discreet, for instance.

Ever wonder why fruit is near the front door of most grocery stores? According to the Telegraph, “Fruit and vegetables look healthier and fresher in natural light. In contrast, meat and fish need a clean white light, otherwise they look tired.”

4. “Triangular balance” and shelf manipulation.

“Triangular balance” sounds like some sort of architectural principle, but it’s actually a psychological tool retailers use to maximize profits.

“Triangular balance is used everywhere and it’s very effective,” visual merchandising consultant Karl McKeever told the Telegraph. “It works on the idea that your eye will always go to the center of a picture. Here, they put the biggest, tallest products with the highest profit margin in the center of each shelf and arrange the other sizes around them to make it look attractive. When you look at the triangle on the shelf, your eye goes straight to the middle and the most expensive box.”

Another basic trick to boost sales is to toss it on an end cap – those areas at the end of each aisle. The most profitable items are often kept there (McKeever calls them the “monthly engines of the business”), and shoppers are encouraged to pass by as many end caps as possible (see #2).

5. “Just toss everything in a pile. People like that.”

While many of these retailer tricks seem intuitive, this is a relatively weird one: Some stores create intentionally messy displays and pile crap in the aisles to boost sales.

Last year the New York Times reported that “After the recessionary years of shedding inventory and clearing store lanes for a cleaner, appealing look, retailers are reversing course and redesigning their spaces to add clutter.”

What the what? The piece explains:

As it turns out, the messier and more confusing a store looks, the better the deals it projects.

“Historically, the more a store is packed, the more people think of it as value — just as when you walk into a store and there are fewer things on the floor, you tend to think they’re expensive,” said Paco Underhill, founder and chief executive of Envirosell, who studies shopper behavior.

It’s also not unheard of for clothing stores to intentionally let tables of pants and sweaters get a little disheveled, because it makes the merchandise seem in-demand. (If other people are checking out these jeans, they must be a good deal.)

6. Analyzing our every move.

Retailers and analysts didn’t conjure up these quirks of human psychology in a dream. No, they’ve closely studied shopper behavior, treating customers “like laboratory rats,” according to USA Today.

Just as some lab rats get only a placebo, retailers typically test new strategies by giving shoppers in certain areas a promotion — or fixed-up store — while others are the control group. Growing pressure to improve profit margins means retailers’ decisions must get results. People can’t just buy something they wouldn’t have otherwise, they need to spend more.

These analyses can be simple, like counting shoppers in a specific demographic at a specific timeframe, or they can err on the creepy side, like implementing “digital signs with cameras that can detect where people’s eyes move and direct promotions to that part of the screen.” Digital signs can also “determine that the person walking through is a man, put up an image of a car or something else likely to attract his attention and then slip in an ad for a men’s cologne,” according to someone who designs that technology.

“Store loyalty cards” – you know, those little doohickeys you keep on your key chain, ostensibly to save money – also help store owners figure out who is shopping and when, so they can squeeze the most money possible out of each demographic of shopper. So they may cost you more money than they save you in the long run.

Collecting data about shopper habits isn’t inherently evil; it can be used to improve customer satisfaction. But increasingly these tools are used for one purpose: to boost profits at the expense of shoppers who may not even want the sh*t they’re buying.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>