Sales and discounts seem to be everywhere as the holiday season approaches. But are these offers really all they’re cracked up to be? The truth is retailers use all kinds of sneaky tricks to get you to spend. Here’s what smart shoppers need to know to avoid being taken in.
Bait and Switch
A top brand laptop is advertised on sale at an amazingly low price. But when you get to the store, it’s sold out. Of course they have a more expensive model they’d be happy to sell you. This is often the story with doorbuster sale items, but it can happen any time. Even when advertised goods are still available, don’t be surprised – or diverted – by salespeople pushing pricier models and saying the one that brought you into the store isn’t good enough.
Bait and switch is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and even though it’s illegal to make insincere – or phony – offers, some retailers manage to skirt the law. Watch out for disclaimers such as “limited quantities,” “not at all store locations” or “no rain checks.” In addition, beware of substandard or “derivative” merchandise often passed off as popular models at super discounts.
Coupons and BOGO Sales
What could be wrong with coupons? Actually coupons can be very tricky, pushing shoppers to spend much more than they ever intended. Coupons often require large volume or expensive purchases. For example, someone looking for a $5 bottle of shampoo might end up spending $19 just to make use of a $1-off coupon that requires the purchase of four bottles.
Another concern is that coupons are often for relatively expensive brands or models. A coupon purchase may in fact cost more than opting for more affordable alternatives at their normal prices.
“Buy one, get one” sales, sometimes called BOGO, also encourage extra spending. Buying that second, half-priced item may seem like a bargain, but in reality it means forking over an additional 50% for something that you probably don’t need.
You may have noticed clearance items at the back of stores so shoppers have to pass flashy, full-priced merchandise first, or that items often bought on impulse abound near cash registers. These tactics are just the tip of the iceberg. Probing customer minds to influence shopping behavior has become scary science. Here are some surprising examples:
- Heat-sensing surveillance: Retailers determine the most heavily used routes through their stores with heat-sensing devices and display pricier merchandise along these aisles. They also may put up decorative “road blocks” along popular pathways to keep customers in stores.
- Sound and scent: High-volume holiday songs and scents such as cinnamon stimulate senses, promote nostalgia and break down resistance to spending.
- Three in a row: Three similar garments are displayed together, with high and low-priced pieces framing the mid-priced one. The high priced item is just there to make customers see the mid-priced one as a great deal.
- Right-hand mapping: Retailers discovered that most customers turn to the right when navigating stores, so expensive items are often placed on the right side.
Forewarned is forearmed – you’re not helpless. Fight back by reading the fine print and sticking to a shopping list and your budget. Research specific model numbers to avoid being fooled by look-alike merchandise and to resist sales pressure. Check out what’s on the left. Perhaps even bring your own music and headphones. Education and awareness are the best ways to grab the real deals and avoid falling for retailer tricks.
John Stephens is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor covering banking and finance for NerdWallet. He previously worked for the Huffington Post and Bravo.
If you found this article useful, be sure to check out these related articles:
4 Ways to Control Excessive Spending This Holiday Season
How to Get the Most out of Black Friday Shopping
Tech the Halls with These 5 Holiday Money Saving Apps