Retailers Exploit Natural Human Stupidity To Get You To Buy More

The Chicago Tribune recaps the findings of some recent consumer behavior studies—for instance, we’re irrational buyers, prone to shoddy math and emotional decision making. The studies might be paid for by advertisers so they can better manipulate us, but as the Tribune notes, they’re useful for us too because they “can help shoppers make better spending decisions if they understand themselves better.”

Consider the concept of “shopping momentum”: “During a shopping trip, making a first purchase, even a minor one, can open the floodgates of buying.”

Shopping has two phases: deliberation and buying. Once they buy, consumers tend to continue buying without returning to the deliberation stage for future purchases.

In an experiment, researchers found shopping momentum was broken when consumers paid from different envelopes, apparently forcing them to return to the deliberation phase and think more about whether the purchase was a good idea.

That suggests a reason for the success of the longtime tip to budget with an envelope system — that is, spending cash from envelopes designated for such purchases as food, clothing and entertainment.

Also, “buying a guilt-inducing luxury item first during shopping curbed buying momentum.”

The “disrupt-then-reframe” sales technique preys on the human brain’s natural desire to seek “cognitive closure” when confused:

Researchers found that by presenting a confusing sales pitch to consumers and then restating the pitch in a more familiar way, they were able to increase sales.

Another common trick is the “double discount” offer—e.g., Barnes & Noble’s coupon and membership discounts, which are applied consecutively instead of all at once.

“Consumers easily confused, manipulated” [Chicago Tribune]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. HRHKingFriday says:

    Actually, I hate going to B&N because of how confusing the prices are.

  2. Buran says:

    “People who want money cheat to get it. Film at eleven.”

  3. bonzombiekitty says:

    “Consumers easily confused, manipulated” and in other news, the moon is NOT made of green cheese.

  4. Underpants Gnome says:

    I was at a Dominicks grocery store the other day, and saw eggs at $6 for 1.5dozen, member price $4, buy one get one free, with unit price listed at $2/dozen.

    After staring at the sign for about 3 minutes, I figured out it was $4 for 1 pack, or $6 for 2.

    The pricing structure was so irritating and misleading, I chose not to buy them there and instead went to costco where the prices are clearly marked. Moral of the story: a confused customer is an angry customer.

  5. JessiesMind says:

    Oh, ya gotta love coincidence. I just sent an email to Walmart begging them to quit treating customers like idiots.

  6. johnva says:

    Grocery stores are notorious for a lot of the confusing pricing practices. Many stores continually change their prices drastically, I think for this reason. This is one reason I like Whole Foods – their prices tend to stay relatively stable for a long time.

  7. joeblevins says:

    How about the old fashion. Old price is two dollars. Gotta raise price, so you put it on sale for 2 for $5… Congrats…

  8. Floobtronics says:

    Particularly interesting was a recent trip I’d made to my local Lowes. While waiting in like to purchase my 3 sheets of plywood, I saw two huge displays of drywall compound, one the “regular” stuff (green lid on the bucket), the other the “lightweight” stuff (blue lid – faster drying too). The prices were roughly the same, within a buck or two.

    What was interesting? The green stuff was sold by weight, while the blue stuff is sold by volume. The buckets are the same exact size. Why the ruse? The blue stuff is much lighter, and thus the customer would feel they are being cheated, vs. the green stuff. Mind you, both products are made by the same company.

  9. FLConsumer says:

    @JessiesMind: The only problem with that is most Mal-Wart customers are idiots. Can’t blame them for focusing on their target audience.

  10. cde says:

    In other news, the sky is blue, water is wet, and Godzilla kicks King Kong’s ass all day long.

  11. ribex says:

    One store where prices vex me is Walgreens. I can think of no other store where 2 for $3 means you MUST buy 2 to get the $1.50 price; if you only buy one it’s $1.79, say. I guess I won’t take a stand on whether it’s better or worse than others (10 for $10=$1 each at the supermarket is a common one), just that it’s incongruous with the rest of the prices I encounter.

    I don’t know if they still do it, but when I used to live near Pathmark, they would often have a few items priced as buy one, get TWO free. This was hard for me to avoid buying, psychologically.

    That egg example above is pretty ridiculous. 18 eggs for $6 is totally price-gouging for not having the member key-tag, if I understand that correctly.

  12. SaraAB87 says:

    Well, if I don’t know how much something costs I usually run to the price scanner to get an exact price or if there is no scanner I ask the clerk to price check the item, then I decide if I want it or not without having to deal with confusing signs. Most stores have at least one price scanner in them, even grocery stores. I like Wegmans because they have more consistant prices than Tops, Tops has lost most of my business with their confusing pricing structure and millions of tags (that are changed every day) stating SAVE 3-5 CENTS on this item. Not to mention re-arranging the store so that you don’t know where everything is. These tags which do nothing but contribute to environmental waste and drive prices up even FURTHER, which explains why prices in their store are double that of Wegmans.

    Walgreens is terrible, my mom spent over 30 min checking a reciept from them because it was so terribly layed out.

    Walmart is also bad, half the items have no price on them so I just throw a bunch of stuff in my cart and run to the price scanner, then proceed to leave what I do not want on the shelf near the price scanner. If you don’t put prices on the shelves then I cannot see how much something costs, and I am certaintly not buying an unpriced item. Their video game department is terrible with games strewn all in the locked cases, and no prices on anything, as a result of this, I shop online or elsewhere for these items. You cannot even see half the stock they have because its just thrown in there.

  13. trollkiller says:

    @ribex: At least Walgreen’s clearly marks that buying one will not get you the bulk discount.

  14. Maude Buttons says:

    @joeblevins: Hi. That’s me. I’m the guy who falls for that. When I’m not in the store? I can totally see it for the math trickery that it is. When I’m in the store however? I feel like I have to buy the new 5 for $5 that Safeway offers its Bonus Card members. (Later, of course, my boyfriend will say, “You could have bought 3 for $3. Or 2 for $2.” But it never occurs to me until later.)

    So, I’ll admit it again: I am what’s wrong with America. You’re welcome.

  15. glass says:

    Yes. Let’s encourage people to walk around with huge wads of cash this holiday season. After making a large purchase, they should then take the items to their car, put them in the trunk, say “I’m leaving now!” loud enough for theives to hear, and then walk into a dark alley, waving about their remaining cash envelopes, while laughing histerically.

  16. finite_elephant says:

    I think laundry detergent is sold in the increments it is to take advantage of people’s poor math skills. It’s usually in 100, 150, 200, and 300 oz containers, of which one will be “on sale.” They’re relying on the consumers’ inability to multiply by 2/3 to keep them from comparing the costs per oz.

  17. gruffydd says:

    My brother falls prey for the “.99″ thing.
    Say something is $69.99, he’ll tell me , “It’s only $60!”

  18. lonelymaytagguy says:

    Wal-Mart treats us like idiots, but knows flattery will get the everywhere. A friend of mine wears woman’s size 16, sometimes 14. She tried on Wal-Mart house brand (Faded Glory?) jeans and ended up with a loose fitting pair of size 12. Old Navy large size shirts are a close fit on me, when I go to Wal-Mart I end up with a medium.

  19. quail says:

    There’s lots of great books about this sort of thing. When I was a waiter the restaurant I worked at had me read a book about upselling. That’s one area most people don’t know they’re being manipulated. A good waiter in a great restaurant should be able to milk an extra $30 out of every table. And you thought you were just getting great service. (Bwahaha.)

  20. quail says:

    @ribex: Check out your state’s law. Some states require the retailer to sell you the item at the $1.50 price when it’s 2 for $3.

  21. cde says:

    @quail: Unless of course they clearly mark that it is not 1.50 if you buy 1, which walgreens does. Walgreens is the only one to stick to that. Every other store will say tough shit, its 2 for 3, not 1 for 1.50. Then you say you will sue, and you get it priced down.

  22. socalrob of the 24 and a half century says:

    @ribex:
    Thats pretty common where I live. Its like 3 for $5.00 or $1.99 each. Its just a way of getting people to buy more.

    Also the .99 cent ending thing is another way of getting people to buy things. I was told by a manager of mine that people feel more comfortable when buying things that end in odd numbers like .99 . Instead of just making it say $10, it will sell more for $9.99 or even $10.99.

  23. bunnymen says:

    @finite_elephant: I was looking at the 200 oz. bottle of Tide I bought for my boyfriend (not my brand, but that’s beside the point) the other day – it said something to the effect of “33% more than 150 oz!” all bright and yellow in the upper lefthand corner. And I’m thinking…so…yeah? And your point? My guess is that most shoppers read it as “33% more free!” because that’s what they assume it says. (Me, I’d bought it because I wanted to be nice and get the biggest bottle available.)

  24. cerbie says:

    How hard is it to estimate, and just keep track? I’ll fully admit I get the momentum thing going, especially for food (me in a stinky hole-in-the-wall Asian grocery store == kid in a candy store), but I’m generally able to figure out how much I’m spending. Just last night, I was only off by 0.52% (sadly, it was Best Buy, and I erred low, so they got $.26 of my actual money).

    But, I know they’re out to get me, and am in paranoid mode when shopping.