How Stores Use Your Senses to Make You Spend More Than You Intended

by on November 27, 2012

Can you stick strictly to a list when you shop? Why do you always end up buying more at the grocery store because you had to walk to the back for the gallon of milk you needed? What about those tiny bottles of hand sanitizer and lip balm at the checkout counter? If you never spend more than you anticipated on a shopping trip, you are a statistical anomaly. For the rest of us, here are some common retail strategies to encourage spending.

The Spending Atmosphere

Retailers use strategies to lure you in and pry open your wallets that you won’t even notice as they work on you. The sense of smell is strongly tied to emotion and memory, so it’s really no surprise that scent marketing can increase spending by up to 300 percent. Macy’s department stores hired a company called ScentAir Technologies to create different fragrances for different departments. The music playing throughout the store isn’t just for your entertainment or to make a statement about the company’s image. Slow-tempo music actually causes shoppers to slow down and spend more time browsing. Even the human factor is used strategically; talking to a store employee makes browsers more likely to actually purchase an item. A simple greeting at the door won’t do the trick, however, so staff training is the key to pulling off the personal touch.

Creatures of Habit

Numerous studies have shown that Americans prefer to shop counter-clockwise. Grocery stores are most often set up so that the typical shopper begins with the produce section, which sets an impression of light, color and freshness that lasts through even the frozen food section, which is almost always shopped towards the end of the trip regardless of the location. Inside the Mind of the Shopper: The Science of Retailing details how the layout of a grocery store affects traffic and purchasing patterns in this way. Stores know how you will move through the store better than you do, and they arrange items accordingly to maximize your spending.


stores use your senses to make you spend more moneyA marketing consulting company called Envirosell did a study and found that people slow down to look at shiny objects. Strategic marketing executive David A. Labonte published Shiny Objects Marketing: Using Simple Human Instincts to Make Your Brand Irresistible. The theory is that the tendency toward shininess evolved to help early humans find clean drinking water. Remember, you are attracted to shiny objects BECAUSE you are a highly advanced life form and not in spite of it.

The $X.99 Price

The oldest psychological marketing trick in the book still works. Why? Consciously, we know that $49.99 is basically fifty dollars. However, your qualitative perception doesn’t always follow your quantitative reasoning. The brain places a higher importance on the first digit reading left to right. Worse yet, those who try to track exact spending instead of rounding and estimating are actually more likely to overspend. The human brain isn’t built to compute the pennies; you’re better off just rounding up.

These market strategies are subtle and often hard to combat even when you recognize them in use. Planning is the key to preventing you from spending more time or more money than you anticipated when shopping, since the two usually go hand in hand. In the end, you should feel flattered that stores go to all this trouble to attract you and keep you there. Maybe online dating services could learn a thing or two…

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

aayna November 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Hey Chris,
I was not aware about this strategy used by the stores. They certainly play on the psychology of the consumer and make him buy more than what is required. Thanks for drawing my attention to this aspect.


Scott December 5, 2012 at 9:12 am

It often irritates me beyond belief that we fall victim to deals, sales and coupons so much. Much of what we brag about being a sale or what we got on dirt cheap clearance was something we were never going to buy in the first place. We consciously think that we outsmarted the store by getting a “steal” but in reality it is they who benefit most because not only did we buy what they were trying to get rid of and making something off of, instead of disposing, but we also were likely to buy something else we did not intend to.
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Fatima December 16, 2012 at 2:33 am

This is good stuff and these are guaranteed strategies that never fail, at least for the 99.99% I have seen. Macy’s is just another example; my friends and i have fallen prey to the aura so many times and I don’t see us stopping anyway 🙂


professionaltightwad June 30, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Stores are now involving as many of the senses as they can. Smell the fresh baked bread or cakes? That aroma can trigger the appetite and as you know, if you’re hungry, you are far more likely to overspend. That’s why many stores are now putting the bakery right near the entrance to the store.
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