While You’re Shopping, Retailers are Watching You

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While you watch for sales at your local grocery store or retail outlet, retailers are also watching you. And no, I am not referring to the store security cameras either. An article released by USA Today discusses how retailers study and test us to maximize profit. In essence, retailers view shoppers “like laboratory rats”, tracking their “footsteps, eye movements, choices and reactions to discounts”. In this way, retailers can better determine if offering a specific deal, sample or trial will best induce customers to spend more money. Or, as in the case of a Target store sending baby coupons to a teenage girl, whether specific customers are in need of diapers and baby formula before they themselves even know it.

Think about how your favorite grocery store will strategically place bulky item displays in the aisles, forcing you and other shoppers to swerve around them. Quite often, these item displays feature a product that you would never have thought to purchase otherwise. However, and especially when coupled to a coupon, that display suddenly has your eyes checking it out and your hand moving to place the advertised product in your cart. Incidentally, this example is based on my own personal experience with BelVita breakfast biscuits; their displays have resulted in my acquiring three boxes of these crackers already – each complete with its own $1 off coupon! Due to space constraints, I also accidentally smooshed part of a BelVita display with my cart.

But the science of consumer psychology is far more elaborate than just strategically placing displays and sample trays in high traffic locations to slow customers down and inspire impulse purchases. In fact, major retailers have entire departments staffed by mathematicians, statisticians and analysts whose only performance goal for this entire year is to get you to buy $X more of product Y. In some cases, this involves recording where you go in the store, what items you pick up, and even where your eyes gaze as you approach a product display. The watching items of choice include store loyalty cards, store coupons, credit cards, birthday mailers and even small cameras placed into digital signs to detect eye movements.

Are you feeling manipulated yet?

Of course, inducing customers to buy more and more often is nothing new. Back in 1957, a seminal book written by Vance Packard, called The Hidden Persuaders, discussed at length why children like crackly and crunchy cereals, why convertibles are perceived as mistresses, why product packaging features dream-like frosted cakes or sizzling steaks, and why payday loan stores get more personal loan business than banks. Towards the end of the book, the author notes how, “…by A.D. 2000- perhaps all this depth manipulation of the psychological variety will seem amusingly old-fashioned.” Well, not only has it not become old-fashioned, it is on the rise.

Luckily, there are many ways that you, the educated consumer, can resist the temptation to spend more and more often. You’ve already heard about not shopping while you’re hungry, making a shopping list and sticking to it, etc. How about also employing the following 5 tactics?

Five Ways to Avoid Shopping Temptations

  1. Record your favorite TV shows or watch them online. A significant portion of psychological manipulation occurs right at home and in front of your TV screen. Commercials are designed to play on our emotions and cue/reward mechanisms, especially those of younger viewers. Stop the brainwashing by recording your usual TV programs and skipping over all commercials. You’ll not only save money but time.
  2. Limit your shopping trip time. Take on a “blitzkrieg” approach to shopping: get in quick and get out even quicker. Keep your shopping list close by, get only the items you came in for, and then get out! If you spend over 30 minutes in the grocery store, you are likely to spend more money too: According to the Food Marketing Institute, we spend $2.17/minute while at the grocery store for the first 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, our rate of spending increases by $0.50 to $2.67/minute.
  3. DON’T buy that iPad. The Wall Street Journal reports that consumers who used an iPad or other tablet while shopping online were about twice as likely to buy something than consumers using a PC. Furthermore, these tablet-enabled shoppers also spent more money per purchase. It’s little wonder that most retailers are focusing heavily on creating websites that are mobile device-friendly; such websites mean more money in their pockets.
  4. Cook once, eat twice. Many people, myself included, will go grocery shopping because “there isn’t anything at home to eat”. Resolve that problem by making large batches of food and freezing the portions for later consumption. This way, you’ll always have something on hand to eat when you’re hungry and don’t feel like cooking.
  5. Take up a hobby. Sometimes, shopping becomes a mindless antidote for weekend boredom or cabin fever. Rather than spend your spare money and time shopping, find a hobby or activity that will make you forget about it. Alternately, if you simply can’t shake off the shopping bug, at least go shopping on FreeCycle.

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One Comment

  1. Great advice, as always. I really agree with numbers 1 and 4 on the list. I’ve been recording all my shows for about six months now. Of course I skip all the commercials. I have been spending much less as a result, and I do mean much, much less. I haven’t even been out to eat in just as many months. Normally my brother and I were mad about ordering pizzas and eating fast food but some of that was due to the fact that we saw those ads on TV so we subconsciously craved them. When you are bombarded constantly by the same commercials over and over again you will develop a longing for the product. The more you see it, the better it sounds. And the more you think about how good it sounds, the more you’ll want to buy. It’s just a common fact. Of course you won’t magically just get over unnecessary spending by recording your shows but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Number 4 is a good idea as well. When I grocery shop I make my list up so that I can make meals that last for more than two days: stew, soup, stir fry, chili. And I frequently look online for recipes that are hearty, healthy and will last a while. This is another step I’ve taken to reduce unnecessary spending: when you have food at home, and you start to realize how much cheaper it is to make your own food, you’ll think twice about grabbing that burger or sitting down at a restaurant. $30 grocery shopping could last you three to five days if you know what to buy. But it’ll only last for one meal out in the streets.

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