Think you’re exercising free will when you go shopping? Think again. Retailers are using an expanding arsenal of psychological weapons in the battle to part consumers from their money.

In May I reviewed Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Underhill describes how stores construct an environment that subtly encourages customers to spend money, and to spend as much as possible. Last week USA Today published a feature entitled Just browsing at the mall? That’s what you think!

As you step in the door of a retail store — whether it sells Gucci handbags, jeans for teens or hardware — you’re being lured to shop and spend in ways so subtle you probably don’t know what’s happening to you. Or your wallet.

Retailers know how you’ll approach a store, where you’ll hesitate, how to affect your mood, how to pique your desires, how to play to your aspirations. Everything in a store, from lighting to floor color to music to how goods are displayed, is meant in some way to get you to not just shop, but spend.

The article describes how the shopping experience is designed to make people buy. Retailers entice consumers with:

  • The sound — If a store plays music you like, your mind will produce positive associations, and these positive associations will produce greater likelihood of a sale.
  • The aroma — With the help of a new class of company, retailers are beginning to tap the subtle psychological power of scent. “At a Sony Style store, for instance, the subtle fragrance of vanilla and mandarin orange — designed exclusively for Sony — wafts down on shoppers, relaxing them and helping them believe that this is a very nice place to be.”
  • The entrance — Underhill discusses the importance of a well-designed entrance in Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. An entrance is a trap. It lures people in. It’s also the spot stores are most likely to place high-volume, high-profit items.
  • The flow — Aisles and displays are crafted to make customers stop and look. The more someone looks, the more likely they are to buy. Toys ‘R’ Us directs customer flow from the moment one enters the store. Customers are drawn through an initial maze featuring seasonal and high-impulse items before being dumped into the main store, generally in front of high-profit goods.

USA Today also has a piece describing how understanding why you’re shopping can help curb it, which offers tips for spending less:

[Here are] five ways to curb excess shopping:

  1. Set a budget for shopping trips. Give yourself a little mad money. And don’t spend a penny more.
  2. Use a list whenever you shop, even at malls. Don’t deviate from it any more than your mad money will allow.
  3. Avoid mass merchandisers — even discount ones — if you only need a few items and can’t trust yourself to stick to your list.
  4. Bring cash whenever possible and leave credit and debit cards at home.
  5. Remember that even small impulse buys can add up to big expenses.

The psychology of spending is fascinating. If you’d like to learn more about the subject, borrow Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping from your local public library. Also check out the series of entries I made last spring:

Shop with intention. Be in control of the experience — don’t let it control you.

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