Who's to Blame for Your Splurging?
Consumers may like to believe they have complete control over their shopping decisions, but a growing number of studies are starting to shake this belief.
“We are much more seduced by outside factors when shopping than we think we are,” said Martin Lindstrom, a marketing expert and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. “And the more on top of the world the consumer feels when they walk into a retail store, the less they probably are because they let their guards down.”
This may strike some shoppers as nothing more than paranoia. After all, isn’t it the consumer who decides what items to put on their shopping list, which stores they want to shop at and ultimately which items they want to bring up to the cash register? Salespeople may be pushy at times, but at the end of the day, we have the final say over whether or not to swipe our credit cards and actually make the purchases.
But as Lindstrom and others have found, by the time we decide to approach the cash register, a wide range of unseen factors in the store – and in our own heads – has likely influenced our decision to shop and how much we are willing to spend.
“Most researchers that have studied non-conscious processes are comfortable saying that the majority of the influence over our choices is something that occurs outside conscious awareness,” said Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University who has unearthed some of these influences. “Of course, there are times when consumers have 100% conscious control over their choices, but these represent a tiny minority of consumer decisions.”
If that’s true, does this mean we have no choice but to accept that our spending is somehow beyond our control?
MainStreet spoke with behavior experts and rounded up several recent studies to highlight some of the lesser known factors that influence our spending, and in some cases, just knowing that these factors are at play may be enough to mute the effect they have on your shopping behavior and avoid making a purchase that you’ll regret.
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Shopping While Hungry
Each year, a new study seems to come out claiming that when we’re hungry, a primal part of our brains kick in that encourages us to be more aggressive and acquire as much food as we can stomach. One 2008 study claimed we effectively become addicts for food in the moment we’re hungry, and need more, more, more until our stomach tells our brain that enough is enough.
Everyone has probably experienced a version of this at some point or other. Just think of all the times you’ve ordered a heaping portion of food at a restaurant only to realize at the end of the meal that your eyes really are bigger than your stomach. But this problem extends well beyond the confines of your nearest Denny’s. Several studies have found that consumers will buy up more goods in a grocery store when they are hungry compared to when they are satiated for the same reason.
In fact, hungry shoppers may also have a bigger appetite for buying other products like clothes and merchandise, not just food. Lindstrom notes that some stores in the U.S. and abroad deliberately introduce scents like cinnamon and vanilla with the hope of making customers a little more hungry and triggering their urge to shop that much more.
So if you feel your stomach rumbling, stay away from the store.
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Shopping with Your Partner
Sometimes shopping with a friend can be the best way to stop yourself from making an impulse buy, if you prime the friend in advance to help keep you in check. But one exception to the rule may be shopping with your spouse or significant other.
According to Lindstrom, the downside of having the extra pair of eyes is that you start to add items to your shopping cart that you may have skipped over on your own because they appeal to your partner.
“You start to inspire each other to make a purchase. The first person may not need the item, but the other may push for it,” Lindstrom said. “You are also much more likely to have a fight because you disagree about a particular product, and as a result, you are more likely to buy that product to get the other party to stop complaining.”
On the bright side though, guys may finally have the excuse they’ve always wanted to get out of going shopping.
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How Religious You Are
At first blush, it seems that whether or not one is religious should have little effect on their shopping behavior, but according to one study Fitzsimons conducted last year, secular shoppers may end up spending more than their religious counterparts.
Fitzsimons and his fellow researchers surveyed more than 1,000 consumers and found those with less religion in their lives were more likely to embrace brand-name products as a means to express their identity, while consumers who identified as being more religious felt less of a desire to find other ways to express themselves and so were more likely to purchase generic goods.
The net effect of this, as Fitzsimons notes, is that secular shoppers spend “way more” on branded goods, which can lead to a significantly higher bill given that generics are almost always cheaper than brand-name products.
Photo Credit: Goldberg
The emotions you feel in the lead up to a shopping trip may play a bigger role than you think in what you buy.
One 2008 report, cleverly titled Misery is Not Miserly, from researchers at Harvard, Stanford and several other prominent universities found that consumers are more likely to spend greater amounts when they are feeling sad because they feel more desperate to satisfy their urges and cheer themselves up.
But even positive emotions can be costly to consumers.
For example, when shoppers are feeling a greater amount of pride about themselves, they are more likely to desire nicer products like fancy watches and shoes that let them show off a bit, according to one study published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research. On the other hand, the study found that when consumers are feeling content with life, they are more likely to purchase fixtures for their home like beds and dishwashers, as well as comfortable clothes for lounging around the house.
So perhaps the best option is to go shopping when you feel at your most apathetic.
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Moving Counterclockwise Through the Store
Retailers put a lot of thought into the layout of the stores, whether they advertise it or not, with the goal of creating an environment that is the most conducive to consumers spending more. But according to Lindstrom, one of the simplest and perhaps most common tactics is to arrange the entrance in such a way that consumers are led to circle through the store in a counterclockwise motion.
It might sound arbitrary, but the reason, according to one previous study, is that it feels more natural for us to walk counterclockwise around an area and when we proceed to walk in the other direction, we naturally feel a slight discomfort and are more likely to exit the store sooner.
“Most of the retail stores have done this deliberately and particularly food stores because it causes shoppers to stay in the store longer and spend more,” Lindstrom said.
For those looking for an excuse to leave the store quickly then, it might be worth trying an experiment where you force yourself to walk in the other direction.
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The Size of Your Shopping Cart
Lindstrom also urges consumers to pay attention to an otherwise unnoticed menace to your wallet: the shopping cart. He notes that the size of the shopping cart can play a big part in how long you stay in the store and how much you feel the need to purchase.
“The smaller shopping carts are never as readily available as the bigger ones, but as soon as you take a big shopping cart, you are basically priming yourself to say this isn’t just a quick run to buy a candy bar,” he said.
The larger the size of the shopping cart, the greater the likelihood that you will purchase more. According to Lindstrom, where 10 items might seem like a lot when they are overflowing from a small shopping basket, it is perceived as being less when it takes up just a small fraction of a larger cart, a fact that makes it easier for the consumer to keep pulling items off the shelves without feeling as guilty.
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Where Your Name Falls in the Alphabet
Your last name says more about you than just your lineage: it also contributes to your shopping behavior.
According to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research, the farther back one’s last name falls in the alphabet, the more conditioned he or she has likely been to be at the end of the line, so to speak, as teachers and event planners often organize children alphabetically. Often this means that someone whose last name starts with Z is more likely to have limited or no options because they are the last to be called upon.
As a result, when this person grows older, he or she is more likely to compensate for missed opportunities by trying to be among the first to purchase a new product, whether it be the latest iPad or a new line of clothing, even though it usually costs more at these times. On the flip side, someone whose name starts with A or B may be less interested in being among the first and can stand to wait longer.
Unfortunately, this is one factor that, if true, is largely beyond our control, as the study notes that the conditioning takes place when we’re younger, so changing your name later in life makes little difference.
Photo Credit: thezartorialist.com
A certain amount of our shopping behavior is, like many parts of our identity, determined by genetics. One study published last year found that the degree to which consumers are willing to prefer luxury items, willing to compromise on purchases or prone to gamble may all be based on our genes. The study was based on surveys of identical and fraternal twins and found strong similarities in their choices in these shopping categories.
But even if your genes are telling you to spend more, you may still be able to employ some of the tricks above to try and force yourself to spend less.
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