You might think you only buy what you need, when you need it. But whether you’re shopping for food, clothes or gadgets, retailers are using the power of psychological persuasion to influence your decisions and help you part with your money.
If you think back, I bet there’s a good chance you remember walking into a grocery store to find that the store layout had been changed. Maybe the toilet paper wasn’t where you expected, or you had trouble finding the ketchup.
Why do stores like to move everything? Well, that’s actually a simple answer. Changing the location of items in a store means that we customers are exposed to different items as we walk around looking for the things we need or want. This ploy can often add significantly to unplanned expenses, as we add additional items to our carts – often on impulse – while spending more time in the store.
Buy on a whim
In fact, studies suggest that up to 50% of all groceries are sold because of impulsiveness – and over 87% of shoppers make impulse purchases.
Although complicated and affected by many factors, such as a need for excitement and a lack of self-control, external buying signals – “buy one, get one” offers – have been known to one for free”, discounts and in-store promotional displays, for example – play a key role.
An attractive offer can lead to a temporary surge of pleasure, making it harder to make a rational buying decision. We are overwhelmed by the perceived value of “savings” if we buy the item here and now – so we ignore other considerations such as whether we really need it. The need for instant gratification can be hard to ignore.
Bundling is another technique retailers use to trigger impulse purchases.
You’ve probably seen it often enough. Complementary products are bundled into a single product, with a single price, which often offers a substantial discount. Game consoles, for example, often come with two or three games, and grocery stores have “meal” bundles and even web pages dedicated to a whole range of bundles.
Shopping can be friend or foe
While these strategies can help inflate retailers’ profits, they can also contribute to their customers’ problems.
Impulse buying can undoubtedly affect a consumer’s mental well-being. This increases feelings of shame and guilt, which in turn can lead to anxiety, stress and depression.
And it’s potentially even worse when impulse buying leads to overbuying, especially if people are spending money they don’t have.
Read more: How to avoid overspending: Discover the psychology behind why people buy
But there are also positives.
Online shopping has been found to give a dopamine boost, as it is released in our brains when we anticipate pleasure. So, while waiting for our purchases to arrive, we tend to feel more excited than if we had bought things in store.
If this pleasant feeling is handled well, there is nothing wrong with that. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always end there. This fleeting feeling of pleasure can sometimes lead to the appearance of a shopping addiction. This can happen when a consumer wants to feel the feel-good ‘dopamine hit’ all the time, so they fall into a pattern of buying more and more items until they become uncontrollable.
On the other hand, shopping can help restore a person’s sense of control.
When we feel unhappy or anxious, we tend to think that everything is out of our control. But because shopping allows us to make choices — which store to go to or whether we like an item — it can bring back a sense of personal control and reduce distress. So it may be a more meaningful activity than many realize.
Retailers can also help us
While retailers may not be eager to reduce the amount of purchases we make, they could, if they wanted to, help influence our buying decisions more positively.
There is an urgent need to fight against obesity in most countries of the world. That’s why the UK government has decided to restrict promotions of unhealthy foods – those high in free sugars, salt and saturated fats – in leading stores from October 2022.
Read more: Do you regret a pandemic purchase? Five ways to avoid buyer’s remorse in the future
This is a strategy that could help.
Removing tempting treats from checkouts can help reduce the amount of sugary foods purchased – in some cases by up to 76%.
And a recent study found that by increasing the availability and promotions of healthier food options (such as stocking low fat crisps next to regular crisps) – and making them more visible through positioning and smart use of signage – buyers can indeed be encouraged to make better choices.
Ultimately, the key to resisting possessions we don’t want or need – and to making healthy decisions – lies with us. It helps to be aware of what we are doing when shopping. A good personal strategy is to try to browse less and use a shopping list instead – and try to only buy what’s on it. But be kind to yourself, because that can be easier said than done.