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Everyday Cheapskate: Tricks that some retailers use to get us to spend more

Who knew that the male brain is hot-wired to believe if a price tag is printed in red, it’s a bargain — even if that item’s not on sale and it’s just the regular price? I didn’t, but I don’t doubt the Oxford University study that found men most often believe that if the tag is printed in red they are saving twice as much as when the very same price tag is displayed in black and white.

That red tag thing isn’t the only game that retailers play to boost their profit margins. Every year, the retail industry spends gazillions of dollars to learn how our human minds work and then uses that information to trick us into spending more.

Take a store’s floor coverings for example. Smooth floors guide you in, and then carpet makes you more likely to slow down and browse. And the deeper the carpet’s pile, the longer you’ll linger. Next time you’re in a supermarket, pay attention to the flooring. See those large floor tiles in the open areas, but smaller ones in front of the pricey seafood and meat counters? That’s by design. As you roll your cart over the small tile, the wheels click more often fooling you into walking more slowly.

Check out that area just inside the front door. See the beautiful fresh flowers, perhaps today’s newspaper, flanking some of today’s sale items? That’s by design to coax you through the door. Once in, you become much more likely to spend some money.

Piped in music can have a huge impact on sales. One researcher reports that when French and German music is placed in a supermarket wine aisle, sales of French and German wines increase respectively. Retailers know that shoppers appeal to the music they grew up with. When you hear the music you grew up with as a teen, you’re much more likely to buy. Expect to hear more romantic music in a beauty department, frenzied, high-energy tracks play in a young fashion store.

So, does all of this mean we should stop shopping because every store has some kind of gotcha! trap set to get us? Not at all. In fact, the more you know about how retailers attempt to trick customers into spending beyond what they’d planned before going in, the more savvy you’ll become. And why not? After all, it really is a game. And getting a peek into your opponent’s playbook can only improve your odds of coming out a winner.

Mary Hunt is founder of


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