5 Tricks Department Stores Use to Get You to Spend More

Every business uses techniques to get you to spend more. But understanding those tricks can help you keep more money in your bank account.

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 has been carefully orchestrated to maximize sales.

If you want to learn more and are up for some heavy reading, you could check out this 2001 report from a City University of Hong Kong researcher 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

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 at the entrance 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.

2. ‘Racetrack’ flooring

The Hong Kong study mentions racetrack layouts that lead shoppers to walk around the store with little thought to where they are going.

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.

Don’t let racetrack flooring push you into a “pit-stop purchase.”

3. Restroom placement

Retailers aren’t necessarily trying to annoy you when they place 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 don’t mean it

The big sign by the sweaters may announce “2 for $50,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a sale price. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing sale signs on racks that 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 for $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 just one item to get the advertised pricing — in this case, a sweater for $25.

5. Promotions they know you won’t redeem

Manufacturers and retailers love rebates because they make merchandise appear inexpensive, yet many consumers never get around to collecting their rebate.

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

The catch is that many of the promos require a second purchase. You might get $10 in department-store “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.

3 ways to fight retailers’ sneaky tricks

Most of these tricks work because we shop on autopilot. We walk into a store with the vague idea we need to get Aunt Sally a gift, and soon these techniques are working their nefarious magic.

To avoid falling victim to such tactics, keep on task by following these tips:

  1. Shop the ads beforehand and make a list. Know exactly what you need before you enter 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. Don’t let promotions sucker you. 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.

Your goal should be to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible with as much money in your wallet as possible. In the event you do go a little crazy, hopefully it is in the store of one of these retailers that have great return policies.

How do you keep from overspending? Share your tips in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • 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.

    • Lorilu

      This is news to me. I have been refused the use of an expired Kohl’s cash, and it was only a week or so after the expiration date.

      • SeSe1018

        Lorilu…this is an old article and the response that you replied to was from a year ago. However, what Peggy Ender stated was correct until a few months ago. It may have been a little known secret, but most stores honored the request if you asked. Unfortunately, people abused the generosity of Kohl’s & tried to cheat the system with the expired “Cash”, so the policy has been permanently discontinued. You know what they say about a few bad apples…

  • 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.

    • B1G1 50% drives me crazy, too!

    • Sean Cammack

      I hear you on that. According to CNBC, fierce compition at supermarkets most regular prices goods are marketed up 15-25%, therefore the store is not making an money on the buy one get one at 50% off. It is known as a lose leader. The store does this hoping you will buy more.

      A buy one get one free means the product is really 50%. This happens because the manufacture and the grocery store chain have each agreed to discount the product 25% each. This makes the total savings (25% +25%) equal 50%.

      Therefore if the product is something you use often it is usuallt worth it to stock because you are paying wholesale (25% off) or half of wholesale (50% off). One exception, and there are others is other stores may have better prices, and may offer the same deal at some point. This takes time and effort though. You must decide what your time is worth before pursuing this option.

  • 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.

  • NoCellPhones

    Wow, I just went over my shopping habits. I guess I’m not typical. When I shop for groceries, at Target, or J.C. Penney’s, I go to the left first, never right. (I’m not left-handed either.) Sometimes, as I get into the store, I’ll ask a sales rep. where the item I need is so I can avoid wasting time. When I went to Ikea for the first time with a friend, I was miserable. We were there for 5 hours because the store is designed so you couldn’t leave quickly. I’ll never go back. I bought maybe $9. worth of stuff after 5 hours. I usually ask myself if it’s a “need” or a “want” and if it’s a “want”, I wait before I make the purchase. When I grocery shop, I look at the top & bottom shelves for the less expensive items, and if they’re out of what I want, I wait until they get it in or, in the case of coffee, when the store was out for awhile, I ordered it on-line in bulk from the manufacturer and saved a ton of $$ because the shipping was free. I rarely buy stuff because of a rebate.

    • ModernMode

      Couldn’t agree more about Ikea. I never went back either. Heaven forbid there’s ever a fire in one. It reminds me of a Disney attraction where you can only go one direction.

  • LagunaLady27

    Even better, I write a list and make my purchases online. Department stores are just for entertainment, not shopping.

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