Work & Money

The psychology of sale shopping: How to spot and avoid the tricks used to get you spending

Two consumer-behaviour experts share their tips and insights.

Two consumer-behaviour experts share their tips and insights

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

This time of year, when the busy holiday shopping season is over, and retailers are focused on clearing out leftover inventory ahead of new-season arrivals, is when you'll be seeing lots of 'white sales' — end-of-season specials and 'final sale' promotions offering additional discounts on top of existing markdowns. 

And while January sales can offer substantial discounts and a chance to buy something you've had your eye on at a better price potentially, it's also easy to get carried away and buy things unnecessarily, simply because they're on sale. No wonder, when brands employ psychologically persuasive marketing and promotional tactics, both online and on the sales floor, specifically designed to get you spending. To help you decode some popular sale-season tactics, and make more mindful spending decisions year-round, we spoke to two experts — Dr. Ying Zhu, an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Management whose research specialties include consumer behaviour and international marketing, and Dr. April Benson, a psychologist and the author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. They shared their insights on contemporary marketing psychology and advice for overcoming the most common shopping triggers. 

The strategies retailers use, and how they work on us

This time of year, says Dr. Zhu, stores might have signs that say 'up to 80 per cent off', encouraging consumers to take advantage of  that 'bargain' and feel good about being a "smart consumer." Similarly, retailers will exploit the "anchoring effect" — prominently contrasting a higher original price to convey value, in their signage. 

Another marketing strategy is rooted on the concept of scarcity; for example, setting limits on how many items a person can buy, or signs indicating that an item is low in stock. "Scarcity makes people make assumptions." Such assumptions may be made about the value of an item, or how much of a bargain it is, says Dr. Zhu. "And if people don't make a purchase, they [might experience] the fear of missing out, or have predicted future regret [about their decision not to buy]." When a website shows that there are only a few items left, for example, it generates feelings of anxiety that can drive you to make a purchase before you're really ready. "That kind of motivation doesn't really serve the consumer very well," says Dr. Zhu. "The psychological urge is driving the [buying] decision." 

The fear of missing out, notes Dr. Zhu, is rooted in a concept called loss aversion. According to the loss-aversion theory, "people weigh loss twice as much as they weigh gain," meaning that if you lose $10, for example, you would have to receive $20 to "bring you back to your previous happiness state." By stressing the time or quantity limits of a sale, retailers can capitalize on this behavioural phenomenon — consumers are made to feel that missing out on a sale would be a 'loss' that they should try to avoid.

Combined, these are powerful tools that retailers can use to drive sales. 

Techniques for more mindful spending

So how to make better decisions about sales, rather than be swayed? Dr. Benson suggests a series of six questions to ask oneself before making a purchase: Why am I here (in this store or on this website)? How do I feel, or, what's my mood like? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it? "What this creates is a delay between the impulse and the action," says Dr. Benson. "That's what we all need to become more mindful, to reduce impulsivity." 

Dr. Zhu notes that the existing research around the subject of self-control indicates that success relies more on not putting yourself "in a situation that requires self-control" rather than being "good" at self-restraint. "If you don't go to the store, if you don't go to the shopping site, you won't need to face those challenges," says Dr. Zhu. "If you go to a store every week, then of course you're going to spend more than if you only go once every month." You'll also want to avoid "shopping momentum," where you're in a shopping mood that's been kicked off by an initial purchase. "When you start going, it is really difficult to stop yourself," says Dr. Zhu, noting that one strategy to avoid this momentum is to set a limit to your shopping time in advance.

Other techniques Dr. Zhu recommends include shopping with a set budget in place, and never going to any store without a shopping list, "Even online, don't go [to online stores] just for exploring." And when you do shop online, add things to your digital shopping cart, but be sure to review each item before check out, suggests Dr. Zhu. Finally, Dr. Zhu suggests using tactile payment methods such as cash or a debit card (which requires entering a PIN number), and avoiding mobile apps and 'contactless' credit cards. While spending any money causes what economists call a "pain of paying," studies have shown that the pain's duration and impact is much greater when you're using cash, or any payment method that is less convenient or automated. When it comes to mindful spending, that pain may be just the thing to give us pause before purchasing. 

Address any underlying drivers

Dr. Benson recommends identifying your personal triggers when it comes to shopping. "Think about where [you] shop and what kind of shopping venue is more likely to lead to overshopping," says Dr. Benson. "There are emotional triggers, such as loneliness; situational triggers, which might be end-of-season sales; interpersonal triggers, like a fight with your co-worker; and occupational triggers, where you're having a difficult day at work." By recognizing these triggers, you can avoid the impulse to shop under duress, and look for other ways to deal with social or lifestyle stresses and challenges. In fact, Dr. Benson notes that the goal of the six questions suggested above is to provide an opportunity to examine the initial impulse to buy, and help tease out what it is one actually needs. "One of the deeper, more underlying but important issues, is the idea that you can never get enough of what you don't really need," says Dr. Benson. "So even if that pair of black boots is on sale for $20, if what you're really needing that afternoon is love and affection, those boots aren't going to do it."

"Impulsive purchasing is just a means to an end; the end is not that you want to consume the products you purchase, it's because you want to make yourself feel better," says Dr. Zhu. We all get pleasure out of buying stuff, but problems can arise when shopping is used as a coping mechanism to make yourself feel better, be less stressed, or help you handle relationship difficulties. "This is not the right method to deal with those things," says Dr. Zhu. "Maybe you need more social time, or some relaxation, or to talk to someone."


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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