9 Secret Ways Stores Seduce Us into Buying

Carrie Sloan

Quick: Pop quiz!

When you go to your favorite grocery store, do you choose a cart instead of a basket? Hum along to the tune that’s playing? Or accept a sample of the new gouda cheese or pine nut hummus on offer?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you were likely seduced into spending more than you intended. And insidious ploys to get you to open your wallet are also going on at malls, in dressing rooms and on shopping websites across America.

Consumer Neuromarketing

In fact, one man has devoted his career to studying them: Martin Lindstrom—author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buyis a marketing guru turned consumer advocate, and the foremost expert on the new, nefarious field of neuromarketing.

Think: Consumers hooked up to fMRIs, which detect activity in the brain, reveal not only why we say we buy, but the areas of our brain that light up when we do. In other words, the hidden motivators brands prey on to get us to spend. In the book, Lindstrom explores the results of many studies—including the largest neuromarketing study ever conducted, which he organized.

LearnVest sat down with him to pick his brain on nine common retailer tricks—and how not to get trapped.

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

1. Supersized Carts

THE TRICK: Just as goldfish expand to fill the container they’re in, it turns out the amount of groceries we buy is directly related to the dimensions of our cart—with a bigger one enticing us to spend up to 37% more. Watch out for that mini-cart your mini-me is pushing, too: “You might think, ‘Wow, this store is really kid-friendly,’” says Lindstrom. “Well, retailers are turning up kid-friendly elements because, on average, a consumer will spend 30% more when they have kids with them.” Retailers even place desirable products at children’s eye level, so they’ll beg you. “And it works,” he says.

THE SOLUTION: Opt for a basket or smaller cart (or be OK with leaving a mammoth one half-full), and, if possible, shop alone. Even having a spouse along can hurt you: Seven out of ten people spend more time shopping when with a partner.

 2. Nostalgic Music

THE TRICK: It turns out Christmas music is a perennial hit for marketers. “It’s an old trick—it makes us feel nostalgic, like we’re children again,” says Lindstrom, who calls the phenomenon “rosy remembering.” In other words, it takes us back to life in simpler times. As a result, we tend to spend 17% more than when generic music is playing. But sound, in general, is a powerful motivator. Increasingly, stores are creating what Lindstrom calls “soundscapes”: The butcher department might play the sound of sizzling steak, or in the soft drink aisle, you’ll hear soda fizzing on ice. “It’s a way to activate an emotion we’re not aware of,” he says, “which stimulates us to buy.”

THE SOLUTION: Bring your own soundtrack: “Wear your iPod and listen to upbeat music,” says Lindstrom. “It may sound crazy, but it not only will make you shop faster, it will also save you money.”

3. The Denomination Effect

THE TRICK: Stop for a sec and imagine the cashier carefully counting out single bills as she gives you change. Did you know there’s a strategic reason stores do so? It’s called the Denomination Effect—or the fact that we’re much more likely to spend $100 if it’s broken down into smaller bills than if we’re carrying around a C-note. In fact, a 2009 study showed that breaking a $100 bill to make a purchase is 48% harder than spending exactly the same amount using smaller notes. That’s why we don’t mind spending spare change on gum or magazines at the cash register, but won’t necessarily break a $20 to do so: We tell ourselves that we’re spending less when only forking over singles.

THE SOLUTION: “Test yourself,” advises Lindstrom. “Try carrying a $100 bill and see how long it takes you to break it. And resist checkout temptation, which adds up.”

4. The Rise of Vani-sizing

THE TRICK: Maybe you’ve fallen prey to this at some point: “But these pants are a size 4, and they fit me!” Cue your triumphant march to the register. Vani-sizing—when stores make clothes bigger so we think we can fit into a smaller size—is “in nearly every store out there,” says Lindstrom, and works on both men and women. Take, for example, the fact that in three different stores, a pair of men’s pants with a 36-inch waist was found to actually measure anywhere from 37 (at H&M) to 39 (at the Gap) to 41 (at Old Navy.) Why it works: Our purchase decisions are one part logic and at least one part emotion. Advertisers play on feelings like size envy to motivate us to buy.

THE SOLUTION: Remember, nobody’s ever going to see that tag. You’ll save more if you size up only how well a given piece fits—and disregard its number.

5. Mirror Manipulation

THE TRICK: It turns out your dressing room mirror may not always reflect reality. “Playing with light is a huge one,” says Lindstrom. Many stores—as anyone who’s ever spent any time in a Victoria’s Secret knows—will add a slight tint of rosy color to their fitting room mirrors to make us look fresher and more tanned. In fact, a recent experiment showed we actually spend 19% more if we think we look better in the looking glass. We may even unwittingly be getting an in-store makeover: Mirrors at the front are typically untampered with, with flattering lighting happening only when you’re ready to try on the wares.

THE SOLUTION: Make sure to study potential purchases on the store floor, not just in an idealized environment created to sway you.

6. Shopping Speed Bumps

THE TRICK: “Most stores study the way we walk around and grab products, then design themselves around the concept,” says Lindstrom. Now retailers are even installing what the industry calls “speed bumps” into the floor. ”Subconsciously, when we feel those little bumps, we will slow down and look around rather than navigate our shopping cart,” he says. On average, the bumps create a 15-second delay, which, in a supermarket study, led to as much as 17% in additional spending as shoppers contemplated additional purchases.

THE SOLUTION: Beating this comes down to being alert: You know each time you hit a speed bump on the road. Now that you’re aware they can exist indoors too, remember why they’re there—and that it has little to do with a speed limit.

7. Not-so-Free Samples

THE TRICK: You’re cruising along with your cart, intent on getting laundry detergent and toilet paper—when suddenly you hear, “Can I offer you a sample?” Out of nowhere an employee extends a toothpick-speared bite of the latest pizza bagel. “Reject it,” says Lindstrom. “Whenever you grab a sample, you tell your body it’s dinner time, and your brain will tune into the topic of food.” In fact, 40% of people who accept an in-store sample will begin buying food, he says, even though they never planned to do so in the first place.

THE SOLUTION: Just say no, of course. But the easiest way to resist this form of temptation is to avoid shopping on an empty stomach.

8. Built-In Interruptions

THE TRICK: “You’re in Wal-Mart, when all of a sudden a display of canned corn the size of a small house blocks your path,” says Lindstrom, “and you can’t help but notice, ‘Hey, this is only $1.50.’” Guess what? That canned pyramid wasn’t built for aesthetic reasons. Whether it’s an in-store obstruction trumpeting a deal, or merely your cell phone ringing, the latest science proves that whenever we’re interrupted, we lose our focus and become more likely to spend. Specifically, when we abandon our shopping list to consider a deal a store presents us with, or revisit an item we were looking at before the phone rang, we’re 35% more likely to close the deal—and willing to spend up to 15% more for the very same product.

THE SOLUTION: “Turn your cell phone off,” says Lindstrom, “and leave your shopping list at home.” While that latter point might seem counterintuitive, stores, he says, have gotten wise to our to-do lists—arranging products that would make more sense next to each other far apart for the express purpose of exposing us to more costly interruptors.

Shopping Online?

The perils of online shoppingClick HerE

9. The Credit Card “Discount”

THE TRICK: “Would you like to receive 15% of your purchase today?” the saleswoman trills, offering an application for the store’s credit card. At LearnVest, we’ve told you many times that opening an in-store card was a bad idea, but “millions of women still fall for it,” says Lindstrom. Here’s why what seems like a good offer actually works against you: again, the unexpected interruption. You were ready to pay, had your card out, and her offer catches you off guard. “That’s when they go in for the kill,” says Lindstrom. “You think: ‘Well, why not? What’s the harm?’ The harm is major.” First, that salesperson isn’t just being nice—she gets a bonus if you sign up. Research also shows that with that card in hand, you spend an average of 30% more. Plus, the store will now know all of your buying habits. “It’s a practice so deceptive,” says Lindstrom, “some members of Congress think this should be regulated.”

THE SOLUTION: At LearnVest, we do believe in discounts—but not ones that will bite you back. If shopping online, look for coupon codes or open a separate email address just for deals, and invite stores you like to send you special offers there.

  • Kristadpeterson

    I wish I had this article before I went grocery shopping last night. I grabbed the giant cart because there weren’t any hand baskets. The large cart and probably invisible speed bumps made me move really slow. I spent $40 more than I intended and bought items I didn’t need or want but somehow during that slow crawl through the market, I felt that I did. I hope to be wiser next time I need to grocery shop. Thank you for your articles!

    • Sunshine

      Did you bring a list? Grocery shopping without a list is NEVER a good idea. I hate it when I forget mine because I often forget something I needed. This necessitates another trip to the store which costs me more in time and gas. 

      I’m a widow on a  VERY limited budget.  And, yes, I usually do walk down each aisle because I sometimes see something I need but neglected to put on my list. But if I’m not sure about needing it I’ll only buy it if it’s a non-perishable item, that way it won’t go bad if I don’t use it for a while. 
      I also check unit prices very closely and keep a running total in my head. Plus, I have a small calculator in my purse and use that if I have a lot of shopping to do. One trick so you don’t get taken in by those big carts. . . if you need paper towels or toilet paper or some other large item, put it IN the cart instead of underneath. That will make the cart look fuller and you won’t be so tempted to fill it with stuff you don’t need.

  • Blkmagic

    I have to say, that as a designer, I feel that the reason for the 36″ waist size measuring larger and larger at the stores mentioned are reflective of America’s growing size.  In order for the smaller people not to have to buy a size 000, the stores have to increase the actual measurement so the bigger folks can continue to shop in their stores.  It’s more about grade rules than anything else.  Notice the stores that increase measurement.  As the measurement gets larger, the store gets more visible (in terms of locations).  Old Navy appeals to the general population of America (and is located in many more places than H&M), who are in fact, larger than the average H&M shopper.

    • mamabird

      I agree with you on this. I have to keep going down in sizes even though my measurements haven’t changed. It’s pretty frustrating to be a 30-something who now has to look in Junior’s departments to find clothes that fit.

      • Madi1996

        Hahaha…And I thought I was just genetically gifted.  I’ll be 44 on Monday and am still wearing a size zero…

        • Charlieoverton

          Man I went shopping yesterday and was so pleased to see I was down like 3 sizes:( 

  • Rosita Villelli

    I work for a mjor retailer that DOES NOT adhere to most of this trickery. Yes, there are ways to alter your mood in store using music, etc. – but great customer service and in-stock shelves have the same effect and we demand those things, we want you to have a great shopping experience!. Any purchase decision requires some level of cognitive effort and most ethical retailers employ in store techniques to give you pricing, quality and trend cues that guide your decision and allow you to leave the store without feeling frustrated. Articles like this are extremely frustrating for companies that are trustworthy – consumers should not feel like we are constantly trying to trick them. I would love to see some numbers from this book on what the sample size is, how scientific the research was and how many retailers actually employ – did he just see these things once or twice and make major extrapolations??

    • Cmcg

      The research into consumer behavior is incredibly scientific.  Paco Underhill’s company Envirosell does tons of research by watching hours upon hours of in-store footage to spot patterns in how people make shopping decisions, among other methods (personal interviews, etc.).  His book “Why We Buy” is a great look into how these practices are used to manipulate consumers.  (Admittedly, I am not familiar with Martin Lindstrom’s work specifically mentioned above.)

      I’m happy to hear you believe your store does not use these deceptive marketing tactics, but consumers need to be aware that most in fact do use them.  If consumers were more aware of these tactics, I suspect it’d be plain to see your store is not trying to trick them the way others are.  That is when a store earns my trust.

      • Sunshine9477

        It’s good to hear that not all stores are “out to get us.” But some stores, especially Walmart, are fiendish in their efforts to trick the customer. Walmart constantly shifts items around so people can’t just run in and buy what they need. They force customers to walk all over the store looking for stuff that’s never in the same place twice, hoping that the customer will pass something that looks interesting and buy it on impulse. This whole practice infuriates me. I mean, how much money does that family need? 

        • Donna

          Walmart is evil. Don’t shop there. Ever.

          • Tina

             … and when Walgreens took over Duane Reade, they filled the store with luxury-correlated wide aisles/mood lighting, and their more logical layout went the way of the dinosaur …

  • Jtuason

    So why not bring your grocery list with you to the store? Even if the things on your list are all over, I feel like when I have my list physically in front of me (rather than just a mental checklist), I feel like it’s more final and I’m more likely to turn away temptations because I can see that the specially priced 2-for-1 ice cream is not on my list. A physical list is less easy to edit than a mental list, I think.

    • http://neatfreakwannabe.blogspot.com Jenna

      This was my first thought as well, for several of the points above.  I make a list, and that’s what we buy – nothing else.

      • Tina

         I have a list, but keep items very generic–I place a premium on will the product in a different form, add to needed time-convenience.  If I wind up spending a little more, it still keeps me from spending a LOT more … I enjoy the exercise I get from walking in an illogically laid out store, for like items, as necessary …

    • http://senseofcents.blogspot.com/ Michelle

      I agree.

    • Tiffany

      I agree, when I read that tip I did feel as though it is counter intuitive. A physical list keeps you focused on not only what you plan to buy but also what you DO NOT plan to buy.

    • Amy Helmle

      I usually shop the same stores, too, which means I know where things are. I list things on my list in a certain order so I can shop faster! Except when the store decides to move things around. Another obvious ploy to get us to see more stuff. LOL

  • Sara

    I have a tip to stop the two minute sales pitch for opening an in-store credit card – tell the salesperson you put a freeze on your credit to prevent identity theft so it takes days lots of phone calls to open a new line of credit. It’s the fastest way to move on from the subject!

    • H8tr21

      How about just say….. wait for it….. NO thanks!!!! pretty simple ay!

  • Gotti


    For years, I have always battled with my weight from slimming down to a perfect size 3 to blowing up into a size 8.  One major factor I blame all these years were my hormone levels.  Anyways, my biggest question…Is there an exceptional fashion designer out there who just might start designing and creating clothes that reduce and expand with your natural weight while maintaining that illusional slimming appearance?  And I don’t mean maternity fashion!

    • Summer

      I’m a perfect size 10 and happy about it, thank you very much

      • Summer

        The Vani-sizing trick can only get you if you aren’t content with yourself

  • Tstanford73

    Wow, I can see how all of these points are so true. What a great thing to get my 15 yr old daughter tuned into. Thanks.

  • B ev.

    This is very interesting. Ihave seen many of things that you speak of, and they do work. If enough people are made aware of these marking tricks-they will stop letting them get them.

  • Firetoair

    I don’t think leaving your shopping list at home is a good idea at all!! Because then, you’re trying to remember what’s on it, and might be more apt to purchase unnecessary items that are strategically placed. That tip was completely WRONG and even defies the author’s alleged logic!! Otherwise, the rest of it was very helpful.

  • Tina

    A lot of the reason the music is nostalgic – to the tune of 30–40 years ago – is that the category killer stores/department stores like to save money on paying royalties.  Many of those songs are now in the public domain, and available royalty-free.

    Knowing this, I ignore any feelings of nostalgia these tunes inspire in me.  [Just a little secret from those old enough to know  better.]