Tips on Controlling Your Impulse Buys

A lot of people believe they're immune to advertising and marketing. A lot of people are wrong.

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A lot of people believe they’re immune to advertising and marketing. A lot of people are wrong.

Marketers have poured billions of dollars into finding ways to influence how we shop and spend. While we’re not completely powerless to fight these messages, it’s certainly not a level playing field.

Marketer Louis Cheskin, for instance, popularized the notion of sensation transference: People don’t just buy a product based on the item itself, but also on secondary factors, including price and packaging. As a result, we’re willing to pay more for yellow margarine wrapped in fancy foil than we are for the natural white stuff in a cheap tub.

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In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill describes a variety of methods retailers use to enhance sales. Some of these are obvious, such as placing sweetened cereal at a kid-friendly height, or surrounding the checkstand with cheap impulse items. But other techniques are more subtle. Fortunately, knowing what’s likely to make you buy can actually help you to avoid being suckered.

Want to win the retail battle? Here are some easy changes you can make to reduce your spending:

  • Spend less time in stores. “The amount of time a shopper spends in a store (assuming he or she is shopping, not waiting in line) is perhaps the single most important factor in determining how much he or she will buy,” Underhill writes. Don’t browse. Don’t shop for sport. Get in and get out.
  • Don’t use a basket. Only use a basket (or shopping cart) if it’s absolutely necessary. Baskets induce people to buy more. If you’re dashing into the supermarket to pick up milk and bread, carry your purchases in your hands.
  • Don’t try samples. Those cheese puffs at the giant warehouse may be tempting, but give them a pass. If you sample a product first, you’re more likely to buy it.
  • Don’t examine or handle things you don’t need. The more you interact with something — hold it, read it, smell it, or taste it — the more likely you are to purchase it.
  • Only seek employee contact if you need help. Employee interaction also induces people to buy more. Underhill notes that “the more shopper-employee contacts that take place, the greater the average sale.”
  • Don’t try on clothes you don’t need. According to Underhill: “Shopper conversion rates increase by half when there is a staff-initiated contact, and it jumps to 100 percent when there is staff-initiated contact and use of the dressing room. In other words, a shopper who talks to a salesperson and tries something on is twice as likely to buy as a shopper who does neither.”
  • Avoid advertising. Advertising exists for one purpose: to get you to buy things. The more you limit your exposure to ads, the less you’ll be tempted to spend.
  • Make a list and stick to it. The majority of supermarket purchases are unplanned. When you shop from a list, you can focus on the things you need while avoiding expensive impulse buys.

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We all want to believe we make completely rational decisions in the supermarket. I want to think I do, too. But even the smartest shopper is constantly manipulated in subtle psychological ways. Learning about marketers’ tricks can help make you more aware, and keep you from being duped as often.