You go to the store for one box of cereal but leave with three boxes of cereal, a gallon of milk, a bag of oranges, a carton of yogurt cups, a box of donuts, a ready-to-bake blueberry pie, an entertainment magazine and a pack of gum. What the hell happened?!
Marketers and sales staff are taught how to influence consumers into making purchases by using psychology to manipulate our buying behaviors. But you can (and should) fight back. Below are seven tactics meant to encourage you to part with your money–and simple defenses for resisting their influence or even striking a better deal.
1. The “FUGI” factor
FUGI stands for “Fear of loss, Urgency, Greed and Indifference,” the first three being emotions to target in consumers and the last one being a mindset salespeople should adopt. The idea is to tell consumers they have a limited amount of time to make a purchase before the sale is discontinued. This taps into our Fear of missing out on something (or our fear of regret) and our Greed, which makes the situation more Urgent: consumers know they have limited time to make a decision before missing out on the deal. At the same time salespeople act Indifferent to the sale, which puts all the pressure onto the consumer–if the salesperson doesn’t care about making the sale, it’s up to the consumer to care about snagging the deal. This plays off the Principle of Scarcity noted by Robert Cialdini in his book, “Influence: Science and Practice.”
The best way to avoid that pressure is to ask yourself if you really need the product or service right now. Chances are a similar sale will come around again weeks or months down the line–and chances are equally well the deal isn’t all that good. You could try to negotiate from here, but typically when FUGI is employed the sale price is non-negotiable: the salesperson isn’t trying to make a bunch of sales, just the ones netted by FUGI. This may not be the case in department stores or at retailers but is generally the case with door-to-door sales and event marketing. It never hurts to try haggling, though.
2. Door-In-The-Face Technique
This is when a large request is made knowing it will be turned down and then a smaller request is made knowing the person is more likely to agree to it. For instance, a box of cereal in a grocery store may be priced at $5 and then “marked down” to $3.50, which was likely the original sales price anyways. Or a saleswoman may ask $45,000 for a new car then after “talking to her boss” (stopping in her office for coffee while you stew in anticipation, imagine yourself driving the car and start over-thinking) she drops the price to $37,500, which was probably what she was hoping to get all along. We see the smaller request and assume we’re getting a deal, which compels us to make the purchase. We’re also willing to agree to the new terms and may feel like we owe the person now that they’ve made a “compromise.” This is similar to Cialdini’s Principle of Reciprocity, which suggests we feel obligated to return favors as a social rule that developed alongside civilization–which can explain why free samples and gifts with purchase are so effective at turning sales.
It may sound cold, but one of the best defenses against this is realizing the person doesn’t really care about you, the person cares about your wallet. Try to realize the free gift or the compromise was a ploy meant to bait you into making a purchase. It can be tough because we naturally want to return favors and feel guilty for not doing so, but that’s exactly how they want you to feel. If they’re going to play emotional hardball, it’s absolutely okay for you to do the same. Mention how you came out of your way and got stuck in traffic to get to the sale and ask if you can get a discount for your troubles–perhaps you’re even putting a deal with another salesperson at another lot on hold to check out this sale. Just do something that shows you did the salesperson a favor in some way and see if they can do you a favor in return (you’re helping them make commission, after all). It may not work all the time but you’ll be surprised how often it does, especially if you employ FUGI as a counter. Door-in-the-face techniques can be a fairly good indication that sale price is negotiable since the price fluctuates but they don’t always mean negotiation is on the table.
3. Store Layout
The very layout of a store can cause you to make more purchases than you intended. Most stores are set up so you have to walk by tons of products in order to get to the one you came for, which is why common purchases and best sellers are usually found at the back of the store and in the center of aisles. At the same time, store layouts are designed to keep you inside the store as long as possible. Popular and pricey products are typically at eye level while generic and discounted items are closer to the ground and thus harder to see. Certain colors have subtle psychological effects, such as red being mentally stimulating and causing us to make more impulse decisions or yellow causing us to become happy (if you can think of a fast food chain that uses red and yellow in its logo, you can also see how influential branding is). Of course, color psychology is dependent on individual interpretations of colors and their meanings, which are typically learned through culture and personal experience…but the general physiological responses to “warm” and “cool” colors (stimulating and relaxing, respectively) and the learned associations such as gold for wealth and luxury, green for the environment or red+white+blue=’Murica are easily exploitable.
The first 15 feet inside a store is known as the “decompression zone,” where customers mentally prepare for shopping and don’t notice merchandise–that’s also where most of the signs for sales are placed to slow us down and to prime us for “great savings” ahead. Items are priced at $5.99 instead of $6 for example, because we read left to right and see the 5 first without giving much consideration to the .99 tacked on the end. This causes us to group $5.99 in the $5 range instead of the $6 range when buying on impulse. Background music makes you relax and lower your guard, items with ample space between them appear more valuable, aisles lead straight to featured product displays, staple items such as socks are surrounded by more expensive products like branded shirts and impulse purchases can always be found by the cash registers. This, this and this are three good articles about the influence of store layout–the last is a UK link so mind the slang, mate.
Every time you step into a store you are stepping into a retail “trap” meant to guide you into making the most expensive purchase possible. Store designers and salespeople will even try to get you high. Beating the trap is simply a matter of awareness. Pay attention to your surroundings to see through the smoke and mirrors of merchandising, stick to a shopping list, compare prices, round items up to the next dollar when budgeting, look all over the shelves instead of just at eye-level and above all, stay the course without getting distracted by all the signs and displays.
Hey, I have this spaceship in my backyard that’s in excellent condition and can actually fly. You seem like the type who appreciates extraterrestrial transportation, so I’m willing to sell it to you for cheap. This baby used to tour the galaxies alongside the ship that went down in Roswell–I know because the aliens told me. I’ll let it go for $1,000, what do you say?
If you don’t think I’m crazy for admitting talking to aliens, then you probably think I’m crazy for selling a functioning spaceship for $1,000. So what’s the catch? Well, the catch is I’m selling the ship for $1,000. But the scheme is the damn thing won’t fly without the engine, which I’ll install for another $8,000 (price of the engine included–reciprocity). You’ve already committed to the $1,000 in your mind so the $8,000 doesn’t seem so bad–I mean, a spaceship does need an engine and the price of the engine is factored in…
This, in essence, is low-balling. The aim is to get the customer to mentally commit to a low price then switch up the deal and hit the customer with the higher price, which was the original price intended. As long as the high price can be justified by the perceived value of the sale, this technique can be quite effective. It’s similar to the bait-and-switch tactic as well as the Principle of Commitment (another “Weapon of Influence” noted by Cialdini). Beating this strategy is simple: ignore the first number. Then remember the first number. Then see if you can strike a deal somewhere between the first and second numbers. Just as you have committed to the sale, so has the seller of the spaceship. This means you can have equal influence over the negotiation since both parties are committed to seeing the sale happen. You could even bring in the reciprocity factor by agreeing to buy the spaceship for $1,000 first then seeing if you can strike a deal on the engine installation. Don’t forget to mention you already did the salesman a favor by believing his story and NOT running back to your car…
Humans are social creatures and sometimes to a fault. We see other people buying a product or using a service so we assume the product or service is worth purchasing. All those other people are doing it and they can’t all be wrong, so why not do it too?
Event marketers gather crowds because it validates the product or service and draws in more people. Salespeople mention their sales from earlier to show you people are buying from them and some bartenders add their own money to tip jars to make it look like everyone is tipping. This is essentially the bandwagon effect and Cialdini’s Principle of Social Proof at work.
Some testimonials come from celebrities or those in positions of authority such as doctors, professors, scientists, mechanics, subject matter experts and professionals. Testimonials from these kinds of people are extremely powerful because people tend to trust and believe them. This is the power of ethos, known in rhetoric as manipulation using one’s character, reputation, expertise and identity. Many of us like to identify with and relate to celebrities so we will buy what they buy and do what they do (we also do this because we like them, another “Weapon of Influence” by, you guessed it, Cialdini). The celebrity chosen for the testimonial depends on the brand, the target audience and the message communicated: Michael Jordan represented Nike and Hanes because those brands target young, athletic males while Kelly Clarkson represented Proactiv because she just won American Idol and the company targets young women who may feel like their acne is holding them back. In both cases, the brands are using the celebrities identities to leverage sales and motivate the behaviors of the target audience.
Additionally, when we see someone in a white lab coat giving medical advice, we tend to take their words as truth because they’re obviously real doctors who know what they’re talking about and deeply care about our well-being . Despite the fact many of them are paid actors, we see the white lab coats and transcribe those symbols of profession to the spokespeople giving testimonials and rarely think twice about them. This is due to the Principle of Authority noted by Cialdini and the fact we are conditioned from a young age to take authority as truth and never question it.
Beating this is very, very simple: be yourself. Don’t jump off bridges just because other people are doing it. What’s good for the spider is bad for the fly. Realize that no matter how much you want to identify with celebrities, chances are you will never meet them and they will never know you exist–you know what is best for you better than any celebrity would. And remember that just because someone wearing a white lab coat says he’s a doctor, doesn’t mean he is. And even if he is a doctor that doesn’t mean he’s right–he’s still getting paid to say what he’s saying and the only reason they’re paying him is because they know you will trust his judgment. Case in point, this actual advertisement for Camel cigarettes that was part of an R.J. Reynolds campaign back in the 1940s:
6. Selling Benefits
The current advertising trend is to sell the “benefits” of a product rather than its features. For example, an ad for a dishwasher may say “what you’re really buying is more time to eat with your family,” which makes you feel guilty for washing dishes instead of eating, makes you feel like you’re missing out on quality time and makes you believe this dishwasher is the answer to a closer, more loving family.
Check those claims with logic and reason, otherwise they will get the best of you. That’s what they’re designed to do, after all. Economist Ted Levitt said it best: “People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits, they buy quarter-inch holes.” And that’s the philosophy of benefits selling: it’s not about the product, it’s about what the product does for you. There is a certain appeal to promoting benefits–maybe it’s the innocent approach or the fact it sounds incredibly genuine, making it hard to resist. But do try. Think rationally about the claim and consider how it makes you feel (for example, “you aren’t buying a car, you’re buying a better sex life”), then look at how the product stands in your mind without the claim supporting it. If the product or service still appears useful or beneficial, go for it. If not, leave it. There is usually more than one solution to any problem so don’t let marketers and salespeople trick you into thinking their product or service is the one-size-fits-all magic bullet that’s going to make your life a thousand times easier and your problems go away–because it probably won’t.
7. Add-ons, Cross-selling and Gifts With Purchase
One sale isn’t enough–retailers and salespeople want you to keep adding to your purchase until your cart is full and bloated like an overfed goldfish. Just bought a TV? Take a look at this nifty universal remote. Just bought car insurance? You’ll probably need a policy on your house as well. Sometimes they’ll offer a free gift with purchase to either get you to buy something else or to remember them as the considerate retailer who “hooked you up” with something special. In these cases the salesperson is utilizing both reciprocity and commitment by doing you a favor with a free gift and getting you to commit to your first purchase before showing you a related item they hope you’ll also purchase. The name of the game is to keep throwing products or services at you until you finally say “no more” but by then you’re still buying at least one thing–if not two. And the internet is no better. Online retailers use “product recommendations” to ramp up your purchases and will even offer free shipping to encourage you to buy in bulk.
To counter, tell yourself you only need the one thing you came for. When the add-on or cross sale appears, examine how much more they’re asking you to spend and if the second item is really necessary. If the add-on seems like it’s worth the extra money, then go for it. But if not, tell them “no thanks” and proceed to checkout. You can always come back to get the second product later if you weren’t able to haggle a better price for it the first time around. But you’ll probably be just as happy without it.
There are a myriad of ways we are manipulated into making the most expensive purchases possible but they all follow the same principles. Keep an eye out for “Weapons of Influence” such as reciprocity, commitment, liking, social proof, authority and scarcity. Also be aware of any time you feel your emotions flare during a sale or advertisement–chances are a tactic was being used to trigger your emotions, which reduces rational thought and causes us to become invested in the product or service before even paying for it. In rhetoric, this is known as a pathos appeal–A.K.A. eliciting emotion and tugging on heartstrings. Ultimately, the best defense against these tactics is knowing they exist and acting accordingly. And now that you know they do exist, the only real question I have left is:
“Would you like fries with that?”