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5 Sneaky Ways Retailers Get You to Overspend

Be a smart shopper and beware of these tricks to separate you from your money.

Medically reviewed in February 2021

Updated on March 18, 2022

person examining clothes on a rack
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Have you ever walked into a store or clicked on a website and come away with much more than you intended to buy? There’s a reason for that, and it’s probably not just lack of willpower.

Holiday retail sales in 2021 hit a record $886.7 billion, including $218.9 billion in online sales. With all that spending going on, every retailer, be it brick-and-mortar or online, wants a piece of the action, and they’re willing to spend time and money figuring out how to keep you shopping. What can you do to be a smart shopper, buy what you want, then close your wallet and keep it shut?

people in a retail boutique
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They tempt you to impulse-buy

In the United States, consumers spend an average of $5,400 a year on impulse buys of food, clothing, and household items, according to one estimate. That’s despite the fact that many of them shop with a list. A 2014 study of nearly 3,000 shoppers by retail industry group Point of Purchase Advertising International found that 47 percent of participants relied on a mental shopping list before going into a store, though a full 34 percent had no list. There is a pile of research on the psychology of impulse buying, so marketers know how to quite literally capitalize on unfocused, in-store shopping. They use techniques like product placement and traffic flow to entice and engage you.

How to keep your hard-earned money: Make a list and stick to it. When you feel the urge to buy an item you weren’t planning to, wait a day or two. You’ll likely find that you can live without it.

elderly woman looking at laptop with perplexed expression
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They follow you around the internet

“Did you ever open up your browser and notice a pair of shoes that you were just looking at advertised on the screen?” asks financial expert Nicole Lapin, author of Miss Independent: A Simple 12-Step Plan to Start Investing and Grow Your Own Wealth. That’s not a coincidence. It’s thanks to cookies.

Cookies are text files that get downloaded to your computer, tablet, or smartphone that mark you as having visited a site. Websites use these cookies to deliver ads—based on what you’ve viewed—when you move onto other corners of the internet.

How to keep your hard-earned money: Lapin recommends that you regularly clear the cookie cache in your web browser’s settings to help remove the temptation.

woman checking out at a retail counter
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They pitch savings with in-store credit cards

If a salesperson offers to set you up with a store credit card that offers a percentage off your purchases or the opportunity to earn rewards, don’t be tempted says Lapin. “It’s not much of a good deal,” she says.

According to a 2020 national survey by creditcards.com, store credit card interest rates have an average 25.90% APR. By comparison, the national average credit card rate is usually much lower. In early 2022, for example, it was 16.17%. And some store cards don’t offer any perks at all.

How to keep your hard-earned money: Say no thanks to pitch at the checkout counter. The amount you would save using the card during a store-wide sale would be miniscule compared to the sky-high interest you would pay on your purchases if you carry a monthly balance.

roller skates, black and white picture
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They play the nostalgia card

They play holiday songs to bring back childhood memories, run black-and-white ads evoking a more “wholesome” time, and revive classic brands like the Volkswagen Beetle. Many marketers shoot for a feeling of nostalgia among shoppers. That’s because nostalgia weakens the desire for money, making you more willing to part with it, according to a 2014 study in Journal of Consumer Research. The researchers found that when participants felt nostalgic, they were willing to pay more for products.

How to keep your hard-earned money: Take off those rose-colored glasses and keep your money in your wallet. 

sale
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They offer misleading holiday ‘bargains’

Black Friday is the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season and the biggest shopping day of the year. Retail stores get shoppers through the doors by offering steep discounts. But some of these deals aren’t really deals. A 2013 analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that stores engage in a technique called high-low pricing. The “suggested retail” price is actually designed with a built-in discount. What retailers charge during the Black Friday sale gives them the profit margin they want. Customers feel like they're getting a deal, but some of the best deals are actually offered weeks before Black Friday. Retailers often also raise prices before the holidays to make the discounts look more generous.

How to keep your hard-earned money: Stuff yourself on Thanksgiving and don’t bother with the crowds on Black Friday. Keep an eye out for genuine deals before the holidays hit. 

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

National Retail Federation. NRF Says 2021 Holiday Sales Grew 14.1 Percent to Record $886.7 Billion. January 14, 2022.
POPAI’S 2014 Mass Merchant Shopper Engagement Study.
Iyer GR, Blut M, Xiao SH et al. Impulse buying: a meta-analytic review. J. of the Acad. Mark. Sci. 48, 384–404; 2020.
Federal Trade Commission. Internet Cookies. Last updated May 2021.
Retail store card APRs hold steady despite Fed rate cuts. CreditCards.com. October 5, 2020.
Average credit card interest rates: Week of March 16, 2022. CreditCards.com. March 16, 2022.
Lasaleta JD, Sedikides C, Vohs KD. Nostalgia Weakens the Desire for Money. Journal of Consumer Research. Volume 41, Issue 3, 1 October 2014, Pages 713–729.
Suzanne Kapner. The Dirty Secret of Black Friday 'Discounts': How Retailers Concoct 'Bargains' for the Holidays and Beyond. Wall Street Journal. Updated November 25, 2013.

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