How Stores Manipulate Lines to Get You to Buy More

Libby Kane

Store Tricks“I’ve been waiting in this line forever.”

Or at least it can seem that way—a factor stores are well aware of.

For them, lines are the final frontier. While shoppers cool their heels, retailers have to scramble to keep us from getting impatient, feeling frustrated—or worst of all, abandoning our purchases.

To them, helping us wait it out means we’ll make it to the register and pump up their profits. For us, psychologically speaking, the longer we wait, the more committed we are to what’s in our cart, whether or not we actually need it.

“When you’ve spend so much time and effort shopping, you don’t want to abandon an entire cart full of goods and hours worth of work,” says Martin Lindstrom, author of “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.”

Yet research shows that the best time to decide exactly what you really need is while you’re waiting.

RELATED: Grocery Shopping on a Budget: 10 Ways to Keep Rising Food Costs in Check

Below, we outline three tactics stores use to keep us in line (for just the right amount of time to keep us committed)—and how you can use them to your advantage.

1. Traffic-Directing Employees

After finding full, abandoned shopping carts around the store, a Whole Foods in New York City wised up and realized there’s a limit to a shopper’s patience with grocery lines. They also found that customers stuck in line find updates reassuring, so now, on weekends, when lines can be hundreds of people long, Whole Foods sends out workers to update shoppers about their estimated wait time. Stores like Trader Joe’s and Home Depot have also adopted the practice, but it’s not just to placate restless buyers: It’s also to make sure we don’t leave.

If you’re wondering about how to have the shortest wait, ironically, you might want to gravitate to the longer line: Research has proven that the quickest way to get customers through checkout is to have a single line that branches off to registers as they’re available, despite the fact that we feel greater control when we get to choose our own line. So, while those helpful employees may not be saving you money, they may be netting you time.

How to Beat Stores at Their Own Game:

Use that wait time to evaluate whether your chosen purchases are needed. Some smart shoppers we know “edit” their cart before they ever get to the register—a smart decision, as you’ll discover below.

2. Long, Narrow Lines

“We know that over 60% of shoppers were offloading products while in line, which is why you see stuff just lying around as you wait,” Lindstrom says. It’s also why stores go to great lengths—literally—to make it as inconvenient and embarrassing as possible for a shopper to put down her purchases.

“That’s why you’re seeing more narrow, isolated lines,” adds Lindstrom. “Cluttered lines with lots of shelf space make it easy for a shopper to leave her purchase, but if it’s hard or draws attention, she’ll hold onto it and ultimately buy the item.”

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How to Beat Stores at Their Own Game:

Be mindful of your brain chemistry. Lindstrom describes the wait in line as the first time a shopper is “thinking clearly,” since there’s a decrease in her levels of dopamine, or the chemical that makes your heart beat faster when you spy suede boots for half off. Once you’ve had a chance to consider your purchase with a clear head, you’ll be more likely to put down the shoes and flee without spending a dime.

If there’s nowhere to put down a purchase you’ve decided against while waiting, return it to the cashier. A friendly “I’ve actually decided I don’t need this” will cover it—you aren’t obligated to buy something just because you picked it up.

3. “Planted” Impulse Buys

Everyone knows that stores love to chisel away at our wallets with the sea of sparkly, miniature and sweet treats that line the aisles leading to the register. (Think: mini lip glosses, breath mints, candy bars, magazines.)

But now, the newest trend is stores keeping the pressure on even after checkout, with retailers setting up kiosks and opportunities for us to make small purchases once we’ve put our wallets away. Why? Stores operate with the knowledge that we’re loath to part with bigger bills than we are with small change: “They give change in single bills and coins, and shoppers turn around and spend it on a pack of gum after they’ve checked out,” Lindstrom explains.

How to Beat Stores at Their Own Game:

If you often fall prey to before-checkout impulse buys, try switching your basket to the other hand, or covering your cart with your coat once you get in line. Anything that alters your habitual patterns will make you a more discerning buyer.

Since we’re much more likely to hand over small denominations without a fight, Lindstrom recommends “cleaning up” after checking out by putting your change away to make it less accessible.

But, next time you find yourself in line, know that you probably haven’t been there as long as you think you have. An experiment from retail consultancy Envirosell timed shoppers, then asked them how long they had been waiting. They found something interesting: If the wait had been less than three minutes, shoppers were fairly accurate at gauging, but after that, their perception of their time spent in line increased exponentially.

We say, If the wait seems interminable, use that time to be smarter about what stays in your cart.

(For a fascinating model of why the line next to you is usually moving faster than yours, see University of Illinois professor Bill Hammack’s three-minute Youtube video.)

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  • LeAnne

    I can’t believe this article semi-recommends abandoning an item in a random location!  If you decided that you put something in your cart that you no longer want, you should be responsible and return it to its location or hand it to an associate to do so for you.  Forcing the employees to hunt for items you were too ashamed or lazy to put away properly is rude and inconveniences those around you, including the other shoppers who can no longer find what they want because you dropped it in a secret location.  Theoretically, stores might have to spend more on payroll to pick up after slobs and this simple act repeated by a majority of customers could reflect poorly on management if they were randomly visited by a higher-up.  Moreover, there is plenty of waste if any of these items are perishable. 

    • Alyson

      I agree.  While I am absolutely not responsible for purchasing something just because I picked it up while shopping, I should be sure to put the item back where I found it.  To me, this is the same as when people don’t return their shopping cart to the corral in the parking lot.  It’s simply common courtesy to put things back where they belong.

    • Your_moms_Box

      Ur an idiot

    • PaulMPW

      You are a totally brainwashed fool. I’d hate to be in your shoes making real quick decisions.

  • jadeplant

    that YouTube video made my day.  i always thought i was just abysmally bad at picking the fastest checkout line–it’s basically a joke in my family to ask me which one we should choose, and then head for any *other* queue.  now i can blame the odds!

  • Guest

    If I decide I don’t want something, my husband makes me walk back and put the item away where I found it. I don’t like doing it but I know it’s the fair thing to do. 

    • Jelun

      It may be “fair”, but, stores hire people to do that. One person doing it may not hurt… if we all trotted it back that action could cut out a job.
      And, PLEASE, your husband makes you?