20 Ways Companies Trick You Into Spending More Money

Sale at a clothing store
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Tricks of the Trade

Most of us know on some level that retailers are doing everything they can to get us to spend big. After all, their bottom lines depend on it. But many of the tactics companies use involve a surprising level of consumer psychology. Whether you’re shopping online or in bricks-and-mortar store, here are 20 ways — some surprisingly sneaky — that you’re being primed to spend more.

free food samples in Costco
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Free Samples

Ever gone to Costco on a weekend just for the samples? Our favorite warehouse club may seem generous with the freebies, but there’s an ulterior motive: You’re more likely to buy something when you get a free sample, largely because of reciprocity — the idea that you buy a product as a “thank you,” whether out of gratitude or even guilt for being given the sample in the first place.

price tag for oranges
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No Dollar Signs

It might seem sleek and chic for that high-end restaurant to omit dollar signs on its menu, or for that little boutique not to include them on price tags. But there’s something more at play: Researchers theorize that we’re likely to spend more when we don’t see the dollar signs, likely because it helps reduce the psychological “pain of paying.”

Amazon Fresh insulated grocery delivery bags totes man carrying to front door
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One-Click Ordering

Being able to order everything from clothing to groceries with just one click is all about making shopping convenient, right? Sure, but it comes with a huge upside for retailers such as Amazon. One-click ordering makes us much less likely to abandon those virtual carts, meaning we spend more than we otherwise might if we had to — ugh — click a few more times or enter payment information.

psychological pricing on tag
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Charm Pricing

This one’s for anyone who ever wondered why that bottle of shampoo isn’t $5 instead of $4.99. In a strategy called “charm pricing,” researchers have found that we’re more likely to think we’re getting a deal at $4.99 because we associate the price more closely with $4 instead of $5. That, of course, makes us more likely to buy. In the flip side, called “prestige pricing,” high-end retailers are better off using rounded prices shoppers are more likely to associate with quality and luxury.

amazon prime package
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Subscription Services

There’s a reason other than convenience that subscription boxes and similar services suddenly seem so common. Inertia — namely, the hassle of canceling a subscription, even one that we don’t often use — keeps companies’ pockets nicely lined. It’s true even though we’re also unlikely to consume enough of something to justify the fixed price, and researchers find we would be better off giving in to the occasional splurge than signing up for a flat recurring rate — even if it “seems” like a great value.

Walmart cart with groceries
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Supersized Carts

It turns out shoppers don’t like pushing around empty carts — and marketing experts say a cart that’s double the size can lead shoppers, on average, to buy 40% more than they may actually need. So while no one likes to run out of room, next time you head to the store, consider opting for a basket or a smaller cart to avoid supermarket overspending.

Super Mario toys
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Good Ol' Nostalgia

Retro game consoles have been a hot holiday gift for a couple years now, and to marketers, that’s no surprise. It turns out that fond memories make shoppers happy — and that blast of emotion is far more likely to make you buy something. Next time a company churns out some sort of throwback product, enjoy the reminiscing, but consider keeping your wallet closed.

Closeup of crumpled receipt
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Liberal Return Policies

Common sense tells us that customers return more purchases when retailers have liberal return policies. True — but retailers have also found that shoppers are more likely to buy in the first place when such policies are in effect. Interestingly, longer return windows also correlate with fewer returns, possibly because shoppers become more attached to their buys and feel less urgency to decide whether to take them back.

supermarket aisle
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Creative Merchandising

Those end caps at grocery stores may indeed display great deals, but that’s unlikely to be true for every product. Grocery stores often pair a loss leader — a product sold at a deep discount — with a premium product with a price to match, hoping you’ll also get the latter while assuming it’s also a deal. It’s a good strategy, because experts say highly visible end-aisle displays can boost sales by 30%.

woman shopping in supermarket reading product information
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Clustering Products at Eye Level

You find name-brand items staring you right in the face in grocery aisles, with cheaper store brands closer to the floor. Those companies pay big for premium product placement, betting you’re too lazy to look up or down to find a better deal. And if you’ve noticed that your kids always throw a fit in the cereal aisle, there’s a reason for that: Flashy boxes festooned with cartoon characters are likely to be placed at a lower height where they can see (and beg) for them.

'The Big Sale' sign in store window
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Limited-time Deals

“Don’t wait!” “Order now!” “Sale ends tomorrow!” Whether you’re shopping in store or online, chances are you see this kind of urgency everywhere. Some online retailers, including Amazon, even use countdown timers that tell shoppers exactly how long they have to make a purchase at a certain price. This tactic is among the more transparent ways retailers get you to spend, in the hopes you’ll be more likely to buy if you think a sweet deal may pass you by.

Walmart store interior in Portland, Oregon
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Carefully Chosen Colors

Red at Target, blue at Walmart: Far from random design choices, colors can affect how we feel about a company and even prime us to buy more than we otherwise would. Target shoppers who feel they spend way too much there can partially blame all the red, which experts say can make us more likely to buy quickly, without too much thought. Walmart’s blue is chosen carefully to appeal to the masses.

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'Social Proof' and Peer Pressure

There’s a reason that brand you’ve never heard of is trumpeting all its five-star reviews in a stream of Facebook ads. You’ll probably be a lot more curious about a product — and more likely to buy, of course — if “everyone” is raving about it. This simple concept, called “social proof” in marketing circles, also applies when companies bring in expert testimonials or include sales numbers in their advertising.

Bakery display
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Sneaky Upselling

“Would you like to add a bakery item for 99 cents?” If you’ve eaten a meal at Panera Bread, you’ve no doubt heard this casual attempt at upselling. And if you’ve shopped on Amazon, you’ve no doubt been shown items related to the product you’re checking out, or bundles of related items (such as a camera, a case, and a memory card) sold for less than what they would cost if bought separately. A deal? Only if you were planning to buy all three to begin with.

interior of large IKEA Portland Home Furnishings store
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Strategic Store Layouts

Even the most ardent Ikea devotees will admit how hard it is to navigate the maze-like store. Want to sound smart? Call it the “Gruen effect” — the simple idea that exposing you to more products will encourage you to buy more products. You can also see it in action at the supermarket, where you’ll have to traverse as much of the store as possible just to get that gallon of milk tucked away in the back corner.

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Decoy Pricing

Many people would balk at shelling out $50 for a T-shirt. But what if you were also shown a $30 T-shirt and a $100 T-shirt? Suddenly the $50 T-shirt doesn’t seem so expensive anymore — and if you want to balance price and quality, it seems downright reasonable. This tactic is rampant online, where shoppers are often shown a few choices at checkout. Chances are the retailer wants you to choose a certain one, and will price one of the other options — the “decoy” — in a wild, overblown way that will steer you back to the preferred option.

Woman in front of milk at grocery store
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Deals Requiring Multiples

Grocery stores love to dangle deals such as “10 for $10” or “3 for $6.” The reason is obvious: Shoppers usually buy more, sometimes much more, than they need to maximize this “deal.” This often holds true even when the store doesn’t require shoppers to buy 10 cartons of yogurt, for instance, to get them for $1 each — simply because of the power of suggestion.

woman looking at clothes in store
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Vanity Sizing

Is a size 8 really an 8? Or is it closer to a 10, or even a 12? Many clothing brands have been putting smaller-size labels on larger-cut clothes for a while now, and while it can make figuring out what size you really are a headache in any given store, the practice shows little sign of slowing. Simply put, fitting into a smaller size makes shoppers feel good, and shoppers who feel good are more likely to buy.

loyalty rewards card and balance receipt
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Loyalty Programs

Far from a good-faith effort to reward frequent customers, loyalty programs are all about reinforcement. Shoppers who buy more — exactly what the retailer wants, of course — are rewarded with some sort of discount or deal, and that reinforces the behavior (buying more) that got them the reward. So the cycle repeats itself, lining the retailer’s pockets even more as shoppers pursue their next reward.

buy one, get one free
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Buy One, Get One Free

BOGO! Everyone loves a good BOGO sale because they get more, more, more. But so does the store. That’s because retailers can clear inventory more quickly and make more money doing it. If you buy a $16 T-shirt and get a second shirt free, you’ve still spent $16 — $8 more than you would have spent on the one shirt you actually needed if it had simply been half off. Stores can cash in even more by making the free or discounted item one with a much lower profit margin than the full-price item.

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