We'd like to think that we're in control of our consumption habits. But anyone who's ever walked out of Whole Foods with two heavy bags in their hands when they had intended to buy only a cucumber knows that this isn't always the case.
Retailers know that we're vulnerable to a number of influences when considering our purchases -- and they've made a whole science out of optimizing the shopping experience. Many retailers manipulate nearly every aspect of our time in their inviting spaces -- from the layout and smell of the store to the price of the items to the behavior of the salespeople -- in order to separate you from as much of your money as possible.
Here are seven ways that consumers are using psychology to dupe you into buying more stuff.
They appeal to our emotions using round numbers.
When judging costs, there's more that goes into our decision to buy than just how high or low the cost is. The way the numbers are presented also makes a difference.
A study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when a purchase is motivated by feelings, consumers prefer rounded numbers (e.g. $80). In contrast, a non-rounded price ($77.59) encourages consumers to buy when that purchase is based on reason. In other words, if the consumer is considering buying something they want, then they will be more likely to do so if the price is a round number. But if they are buying something they need, non-rounded numbers will be more persuasive.
"Ours is the first research to show that the mere roundedness of a price number could significantly influence consumer preferences, depending on whether a purchase is driven by feelings or has a more utilitarian purpose," the study's authors explain.
They fill the air with inviting scents.
Next time you're at the mall, beware of the warm, comforting scents like cinnamon -- innocent as they may seem, they may be a retailer's way of tricking you into splurging on a new product.
New research finds that people who smell "warm" fragrances feel that they're in a more crowded space, and as a result feel less powerful. "This can lead them to compensate by buying items they feel are more prestigious," the study's authors explain.
In the future, you might also find more and more stores (and not just L'Occitane) pleasing your nose with the calming scent of lavender as you walk in the door. According to a new study from Leiden University, the scent of lavender can create feelings of trust.
"Smelling the aroma of lavender may help a seller to establish more easily a trusting negotiation to sell a car, or in a grocery store it may induce consumers to spend more money buying products," explained Leiden psychologist Roberta Sellaro.
They're mean to you.
Being harassed by rude salespeople might not seem like something that would make you want to become a patron of a particular store -- but the research suggests that in luxury stores, it may be the case.
According to research from the University of British Columbia, consumers who interacted with rude staff at a high-end store were more likely to purchase expensive products. However, this effect did not extend to mass-market brands.
"It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci," marketing researcher Darren Dahl said in a statement. "Our research indicates they can end up having a similar effect to an 'in-group' in high school that others aspire to join."
They make it difficult to find what you need.
Ever get lost in Ikea or a huge Forever 21 store? There's a good chance that you have, and that it was the store's fault -- not yours.
Store layouts that feel like a maze might be frustrating, but they may also lead you to buy more. Basically, the store or mall employs a tactic meant to disorient you into buying more stuff. It's a phenomenon known in marketing and advertising as the "Gruen Transfer": There's a moment at which we stop looking for the item we were shopping for, and we start just shopping.
This is in many cases the reason that grocery stores relegate essential items like milk and eggs at the back of the store, forcing the consumer to wander through aisles to get there.
They tempt you with delicious treats.
"Free" samples might not be quite as altruistic as they seem. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research indulging in a sweet treat can boost a shopper's desire for non-food luxuries.
Just a taste of free chocolate could "activate goals associated with indulgence... and encourage subsequent acts of indulgence," the researchers explain.
They let you play with things.
If you're trying to save money, think twice before you try that hand lotion or pick through a pile of sweaters. According to 2009 research, consumers who touch products will pay more for them than those who keep their hands off. Apparently, putting our hands on things makes us feel a greater sense of ownership over them.
"When you touch something, you instantly feel more of a connection to it," study co-author Suzanne Shu, a marketing professor at UCLA told TIME. "That connection stirs up an emotional reaction — 'Yeah, I like the feel of it. This can be mine.' And that emotion can cause you to buy something you never would have bought if you hadn't touched it."
They use music to get you in the mood to spend.
While careful consumers buy less than usual when music is playing in a store, research has shown that impulse shoppers tend to be swayed by a good beat. A 2005 study found that shoppers who made unplanned purchases spent an average of $32 more when slow-tempo popular music was playing than those in a control condition with no music.