5 Department Store Tricks of the Trade, and 3 Ways to Turn the Tables

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We all know retailers use marketing tricks to get us to buy more. Everything from the music on the intercom to the scents in the air have been carefully orchestrated to maximize sales.

Money Talks News has previously tackled the subject of grocery store tricks of the trade, and today we’ll check out something a bit more holiday-related: department stores.

Start with this video from Money Talks founder Stacy Johnson to see how retailers may be tricking you into spending more than you planned.

If you want to learn more and are up for some heavy reading, you could check out this 2001 report from Hong Kong detailing how store environments impact shopping behaviors. Otherwise, we’ll make it easy for you: Here are five ways department stores convince you to blow your budget.

1. Store layout means laying out more cash

When it comes to a store’s layout, nothing is left to chance.

At the mall, for example, the most appealing items may be placed front and center to convince you to walk in.

Then, on your right, you’ll find some of the most profitable items in the store. For whatever reason, we are programmed to veer right when entering, and stores want the next thing we see to be something profitable.

Of course, clearance racks will be in the very back so you need to pass everything else before you can reach the discounted merchandise. As a bonus, the long walk keeps you in the store longer. And the longer you’re in the store, the more purchase opportunities you can be presented with.

If it weren’t bad enough stores are using human nature to manipulate us, it seems to be only a matter of time before your smartphone turns against you too. UK company Path Intelligence has developed technology that will pick up signals coming from mobile devices and use those signals to track shopping patterns and help businesses improve their layout and sales.

2. “Racetrack” flooring for “pit stop” purchasing

The Hong Kong study makes mention of racetrack layouts that lead shoppers to walk around the store with little thought to where they are going or what they are looking for.

That’s essentially the purpose of the smooth linoleum floor in department stores, with carpet off to the sides. You enter the store and vroom, vroom, you’re on the track. Maybe what you need isn’t far inside but by golly, you are going to follow that walkway all the way around the store.

When you see something interesting, you are going to step off the racetrack and onto the carpeted floor and then suddenly feel calm, relaxed … like maybe you’ll just want to stand there for a while and see what else is available on the nearby racks.

I know you think I am making this up, but really, pay attention the next time you are in a department store and see if I’m right.

3. You’ll need a rest by the time you reach the restroom

Remember how I said nothing is left to chance when setting up a store’s configuration? That goes for the restrooms too.

Retailers aren’t necessarily trying to annoy you when they place their restrooms all the way in the back of the store, but they are hoping you will happen to see some must-have item on your way there or back.

Again, the longer you’re in the store, the better they like it.

4. Signs that imply “sale” but really mean “for sale”

The big sign by the sweaters may announce 2/$50, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sale price. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing sale signs on racks we automatically assume any price prominently displayed must be a special.

Retailers exploit this by advertising everyday prices. Nothing illegal – or unethical – about that. Businesses are generally free to promote their regular prices in the same way they do sales, but now you know to double check the original price to ensure you are actually getting a deal.

While we are on the topic of signs and pricing, let’s talk about that 2/$50 sign for a moment. Stores use this pricing model because they would much rather sell you two sweaters than one. However, unless the sign specifically says so, you can typically buy only one item to get the advertised pricing – in this case, a sweater for $25.

5. Special promotions they know you won’t redeem

You’ve probably heard manufacturers and retailers love rebates because they make merchandise appear inexpensive, yet many consumers never get around to getting their rebate.

But rebates aren’t the only game in town. Retailers roll out awesome promos that will make you feel as though you are practically stealing their merchandise.

The catch is many of their promos require a second purchase. You might get $10 in Kohl’s Cash for every $50 you spend, but the store knows a significant portion of people lose the certificate or forget to use it before the expiration date. Meanwhile, the store has convinced you to find $50 worth of items to buy when you really only needed to spend $30.

As for rebates, some business owners are even advised on how to make rebate redemptions more difficult. From short redemption periods to mailing checks that look like junk mail, some businesses aren’t in the business of making it easy to get your money back.

3 ways to fight retailers’ sneaky tricks

Most of the tricks mentioned above work because we shop on auto-pilot. We walk into a store with the vague idea we need to get Aunt Sally a gift, and we think JCPenney probably has something she would like.

However, that’s when we hit the racetrack walkway, take a detour at the giant must-be-a-sale sign and end up at the register buying armloads of things we didn’t know we needed two hours ago.

Instead, keep on task by following these tips:

  1. Shop the ads beforehand and make a list of exactly what you need in the store. Don’t write down “gift for Aunt Sally”; decide in advance whether that will be a sweater, a Christmas ornament or something else.
  2. When you enter the store, make a beeline for the first item on your list. If you don’t know where it is, stop the first associate you see and ask rather than wandering the store.
  3. If you find yourself scavenging racks for something you “need” so you can qualify for the current store promo, realize you are playing right into the store’s plan. My advice would be to head straight to the register at that point.

It isn’t rocket science, but there is a science behind how retailers keep you in their stores. Your goal should be to get in and out as quickly as possible with as much money in your wallet as possible. In the event you do go a little crazy in the store, hopefully it is in one of these retailers that have return policies making it easy to get your cash back.

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Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • Peggy Ender

    Kohls cash “makes” you think they expire. However, we have found out thru a recent experience that it is actually good for 1 (one) year. Just take them to the customer service counter instead of the checkout for verification.

  • Sharon J

    My all time retail annoyance is buy 1 at regular price get the second for 50%off. BIG DEAL

    • Malcom Treadway

      It’s called 25% off. That game has been played with tire retailers for eons: Buy 3 and get the 4th one free. Same game.

  • Malcom Treadway

    Uncarpeted center aisle to “funnel’ one in? Perhaps, but I would’ve thought it had a more practical aspect: saving wear and tear on carpeting in a high traffic area, and the need to replace, rather than wax and buff tile.