When it comes to spending, your subconscious may be your budget’s biggest enemy.
“A huge portion of our decision-making processes as humans are non-conscious,” says Roger Dooley, author of “Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing.” Our brain is fundamentally lazy, he explains. Because it consumes much of our body’s energy, it’s always looking for more efficient ways to make decisions.
Savvy retailers know this—and will do whatever possible to make spending easy on the brain by appealing to your senses and subconscious. But that doesn’t mean you have to fall for it this holiday shopping season. Just being aware your emotional buttons are being pushed is the first step to resisting retailers’ tricks and controlling your spending.
Here are six strategies retailers use to entice you to spend more—and what you can do to counteract them.
1. Lingering Scents
The more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to rack up a hefty bill. So one way businesses get you to hang around longer is by strategically wafting in pleasing scents.
Ever noticed that warm rotisserie chicken smell near the deli? Dooley says it’s to whet your appetite while shopping. “It immediately activates that part of your brain that says, ‘Wow, I’m hungry; I think I’ll buy one,'” he says.
Or how about the smell of freshly baked bread? This not only triggers your taste for the bakery section, says Kit Yarrow, PhD, author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind,” but also your sense of security. “Bread has specific emotional connotations for consumers—wholesomeness, trustworthiness,” she says. “The smell of bread makes people feel like they’re safe and nurtured, so they want to buy more.”
The grocery store isn’t the only place you might be enticed by a delicious smell. “Various scents have been shown to influence shopping behavior, even when they don’t directly relate to the product,” Dooley says. For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the smell of chocolate in bookstores increases the time people spend browsing the shelves and the amount they ultimately spend.
So how are you supposed to resist these tricky aromatic spending traps? Yarrow suggests keeping your guard up while shopping by placing some specific parameters around the trip, like setting a time and spending limit, as well as using a list to keep you on track. And try to avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry.
2. Mood Music
The sounds in a store work in much the same way. Depending on the retailer’s target ambiance, you might hear calming music or popular tunes to encourage you to feel relaxed or happy and stick around.
The genre of music might even inspire you to buy more of a certain type of product. Dooley says that a supermarket experiment focused on wine sales showed that when French music played, customers bought more French wine; when German played, people purchased more German wine. And classical music has been found to put people in the mood for high-end living, nudging them to buy pricier items.
Aside from turning up the volume in your earbuds, your best bet for blocking out auditory tempters is to follow the same habits that help you resist enticing smells: prepare a shopping list at home, and stick to a specific time and spending target in the store. Or shop online.
3. Special Placements
Have you ever noticed that sale sections and must-have seasonal merchandise—like back-to-school or Christmas-themed goods—are often set up in the back of the store? That’s by design, so you have to pass everything else (and hopefully fill your shopping cart) before you get to them, Yarrow says.
Teri Gault, shopping expert and author of “Shop Smart, Save More,” notes a similar trick in which grocery stores fracture departments, making it more difficult to find cheaper brands. For example, she says, “the gourmet cheese display is usually as you enter the door, [while] the cheapest cheese is on the opposite end of the store in the open dairy aisle.”
Downloading a shopping app with special deals and coupons may help you stay focused enough to beeline to exactly what you want to buy. And don’t be afraid to speak up if you need some help. “If you don’t find that killer deal you saw on the front page of the sales circular, ask!” says Gault.
4. Tempting Touches
A strategic store layout might get you to not only see, but also touch many products. For example, in a clothing store, you may find many nice, soft-looking sweaters stacked on a central table, tempting you to touch them. They might even be askew, indicating that it’s okay to handle them.
In fact, messier displays—like sales bins with a wide array of knick knacks—are used to invite shoppers to get handsy with the merchandise. “Once people touch things, they’re more likely to buy them,” Yarrow says.
Of course, just because a sweater feels nice, or you’ve touched some tsotchkes, certainly doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. So before you make a purchase, ask yourself a few questions: Is this item worth the hours you’ll have to work in order to afford it? Is there something better you could be doing with the same money?
5. Easy Payments
Online shops might have a harder time preying on shoppers’ senses, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. One way they appeal to your subconscious is by facilitating a quick and easy checkout.
Amazon, for example, offers a one-click purchase option, making it dangerously easy to overspend on the site. “[They’ve] figured out how to take the friction out of buying,” Dooley says. “That’s one reason they’re so successful.”
But no matter how simple a retailer makes it, you can make buying harder for yourself with a little effort. Yarrow suggests not storing your credit card on shopping sites, for example. “Force yourself to enter it in [for every purchase],” Yarrow says. “In the time it takes you to do that, you might change your mind.
Both online and in stores, retailers employ a sense of scarcity in order to push you to buy now, whether it’s with a banner that says “only 3 items left!” or a limited edition product or line. “People are inspired to purchase things when they’re afraid they’re going to miss out,” says Yarrow. “Fear of loss is psychologically more profound than desire for gain.”
While it may be difficult, Yarrow urges consumers to take their time before committing to a purchase. You could take a quick lap around the mall, or instate a mandatory 24-hour rule before buying. You may find that much of your initial excitement wanes when you allow for some breathing room.
“The longer you delay making the purchases, the more likely you’ll be getting something you really want,” she says. “Train yourself to think of the value of money you’re spending.”