Buyers Beware: Seven Gimmicks to Watch Out for This Shopping Season

Whether it’s the grocery store or your local superstore, retailers have an arsenal of tricks at their disposal to coax more money from your pockets. From freshly baked bread, to cleverly organized and colorful displays, it takes some financial discipline just to make it out of the store with any money left at all. With one less week this year between Black Friday and December 25th the shopping ‘rush’ could quickly become the shopping ‘crush’. Prepare yourself and keep an eye out for these seven gimmicks to save some of that hard-earned money.

Subconscious Strategies

We are hardwired to respond to certain stimuli and retailers spend boatloads of money on research to maximize the effectiveness of their store environments. We key on certain colors like red and we react to smells like the freshly baked bread at the front of the store. We’ve all gone to the grocery store hungry right? Restaurants vent their kitchen exhaust towards the road so everyone who passes by can smell all of the aromas, triggering our hunger response. The color red has been shown to increase our heart rate and create a sense of urgency, is it any wonder why it is used so much in clearance sales.

Retailers also put a great deal of thought into the layout of their stores. Placing everyday items, we all need, like toilet tissue and bottled water in the back of the store so we have to walk past all the other ‘eye candy’. Isles are end capped with rounded displays so our eyes never deviate from the shelves. Flooring transitions between tile and carpet are laid out in order to steer you through the store. The next time you are in a multilevel store, take note of the escalator locations. I’ll bet that the escalator that goes up isn’t located beside the escalator that goes down. They are strategically placed so consumers have to walk halfway around the store before you change floors. Some stores even move items around just to keep customers looking for longer durations, increasing the chance for an impulse buy.

Everything in the store is carefully designed to make you want to spend money. That’s the business they are in. Sounds, colors, music, smells, and even subconscious cues all play a key part in parting us from our money from our wallets.

Price Reductions & Sales

Stores run sales year-round but what they don’t want you to know that sometimes they will increase the price prior to the actual sale. In the end, you end up saving exactly zero. Most people will automatically choose an item with the clearance tag on it no matter if it’s the same price as it was before. The mental cue of the ‘red tag’ or the ‘clearance tag’ suggests to us that it’s a better deal. Not all deals are created equal. If a sign shows a price reduction but not a previous price, for example ‘was $329.99 Now $250.00’, then the price probably hasn’t been reduced at all. The retailer may have added the tag just to draw attention to the item. Alternately, sometimes a temporary sale sticker is added on top of the original price tag. When peeled back, you find the price is the same on both.

Beware the ‘Black Friday’ money trap also. There are some great deals to be had and retailers know people will be waiting at the doors chomping at the bit to spend money. What happens when you get inside and the deal you were all excited about is sold out? Retailers can advertise a product at a great deal but they aren’t required to have a large number in stock on the day of the sale. Overcome the urge to spend just because you happen to be there. Look for other good deals but be aware it is the retailer’s job to get you to impulse shop.


Coupons are great. I am a huge advocate of using the discounts that companies provide in the form of coupons. Now that I’ve established that, b e c a r e f u l. Coupons only net you savings when you use them for items that you would already purchase. Don’t let the opportunity to save money drive you into spending it on items you don’t need, pretty basic stuff right? Also, don’t forget to factor in transportation costs when you see a deal. If you have to spend ten dollars in fuel to get to the store where the sale is, then you may be losing money in the end.

Don’t buy multiple items if you don’t need them. Buy three get the forth free is only great for high use items and tires. Do you need four jars of mayo? Also, I hate those coupons that piggy-back another product. You’ve seen them, save $1 on the item you want if you buy two of something else, usually something that wasn’t on your list to start with. It’s a good marketing ploy, designed to introduce consumers to new products, but be careful not to spend money on something you wouldn’t normally have bought. That kind of impulse buy doesn’t translate into net savings at the checkout. Lastly, don’t forget the expiration dates. Most coupons are only valid for a certain amount of time and, again, make the call on whether you are going to use the item within a reasonable time or if the extra expense is just wasteful spending.

On a side note, I also have issues with ‘online only’ deals. First, I like to see what I am buying. Second, often the advertising for online merchandise is misleading. For example, if an item is 20% or in store and $25% of online it’s easy to forget to factor in the shipping and handling costs associated with e-commerce. The 5% savings could be outweighed by shipping costs. You may find yourself better off shopping at the local retailer.

“Pricing Errors”

This is where the store has posted prices on an item, but at the register, the item rings up a different price. A certain superstore seems to do this all the time. I suppose that an item could have its price changed and it never be updated in the store computer system but it seems to happen a lot. Be aware of what you have in your cart and how much it should cost. I carry a smart phone and am notorious for toting it around the store with my calculator app open. I get some sidelong glances from time to time but I know what to expect when I get my wallet out at the register. Most people are just interested in getting out of the store once they are finished shopping and don’t give a second thought to the individual prices as they checkout. The total simply goes unchallenged. A few dollars here and there may not seem like a lot but it adds up quickly for the retailer.

Misleading Signage

Imagine yourself walking through a store. You come upon a display of say, art supplies. On top of said display there is a sign that reads 40% off and you think, “score”. You finish your shopping and move to the front of the store to wait in line and check out only to find that once your reach the cashier that your great find, was in fact, full price. Now you are faced with a choice. You can bite the bullet and pay full price, you can put the item back, or you can stand your ground and insist that the item was marked for sale. For those of you who would, or have made, the decision to take a stand you have my admiration and kudos to you.

Unfortunately, what has most likely occurred is you’ve been a victim of an unscrupulous ploy to deceive consumers into thinking that all items on the display were on sale when they actually weren’t. In a case that happened to my wife and I, only the items on the top of the display were on sale and the signage was partially obscured by the decorations on the rack. When confronted about the sale the store employee confessed to us that they (the store) made them do it this way and was frantic to show us how we could get a big discount if we’d only let him show us on our smart phone.

It’s not uncommon to find cheap items staged next to similar, more expensive, items. Take two racks of bookmarks for example; the top rack contains lower quality merchandise priced at .49 cents each and the bottom containing a higher quality product priced at $2.49 each, the top rack will most likely have a larger red price tag advertising the low price of .49 cents while the bottom rack may go un-priced all together. It’s easy for people to misconstrue that both items are the same price. Many stores now have price scanners, if you aren’t certain of a price or something seems a little ‘fishy’, take a few moments and investigate. If all else fails, just ask a store employee, it’s their job to assist you after all.

Going Out of Business (Indefinitely) Sales

We’ve all seen one of these at some point in our lives. There was a store in my hometown that was “going out of business” for years and years. I guess they could conceivably have a few good deals but the basic theme here is the sale is a hoax. That being said, most stores you encounter do not engender trust from their outside appearance but this kind of store automatically sends up the warning flag. So, if you know before you walk in the door that they are prone to dishonesty, then you should probably not look to discover an institution of honesty on the inside.

When you go shopping this holiday season, daring fate and the over-zealous crowds, be aware of the war zone you are entering. You are a consumer just like me and we all want a good deal. Don’t blindly let retailers cheat you out of money that you can use for other goods.

Until next time, have fun and happy shopping.

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