Psych Marketing: 4 Common Tricks Retailers Use to Get Into Your Mind and Wallet

Have you ever gone to one of those huge chain stores that has just about everything? Whether it’s a Super Target, Meijer, or Wal-Mart, these stores seem like the most convenient places on Earth. When you need some toothpaste, batteries, and milk, it’s heaven to be able to get it all under one roof — until you realize the items you want are all scattered at the far corners of the overly massive stores!

Twenty minutes later, after singing “I Would Walk 500 Miles” while you toddle through all the different sections of the place, you leave spending about double what you originally planned on. Guess what, my friend? You just got psyched! The store’s designers wanted you to pass as many items as possible while on your way to buy the three things you went there for in the first place. That’s the truth.

Majoring in psychology really opened my eyes to some of the tricks of the trade that retailers will use to get you to buy more. Once I was aware of these schemes, it helped me become a better shopper. Here are examples of some of the most common ways retailers will get into your mind to get into your wallet:

  1. 10 for $10 – Buying ten jars of grape jelly isn’t a requirement to get sale pricing. It’s just a suggestion that happens to be a pretty round number. You could buy eight for $8, or four for $4. But doesn’t it feel good to get the full ten? And don’t forget about its less pretty cousin, 3 for $5. This might actually work better since two for $3.33 doesn’t sound sexy at all…
  2. “2 for” vs. 1 Big One – This is one of my favorite examples. For people that frequently buy half gallons of milk, a “two for” deal might sound great. However, what they fail to realize is that one whole gallon still usually costs less than the two half gallons on sale!
  3. Look Up and Down – The middle (eye level) shelves at stores are full of the best sellers and the store’s best money makers. Retailers bet on customers grabbing the first items they see, so just looking at the tops and bottoms of shelves can reveal some of the better deals and money savers. Pretty easy one, right?
  4. A Bajillion-Dollar Value for Only $19.99! – Who said that top-of-the-line cappuccino machine is worth a bajillion dollars? Not me. Not you. It was most likely some number crunchers who tried to figure out the highest dollar amount you’d actually believe. Keep that in mind for those late night infomercials. Those Snuggies may not be as good of a deal as they’re leading you to believe…

If you want to avoid these marketing psych-outs, then be extra alert when you shop. Be skeptical of sales; remember, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Retailers almost always have a catch with coupon savings and offers, but you have to look long and hard to find it!

Just being able to identify when these “deals” are in front of me has led me to put back the ninth and tenth cans of beans, or to buy the big bottle of ketchup instead of the two smaller ones. Avoiding psych marketing means that I can save my money for what really matters…guitars, shoes, and video games! You know, the important stuff.

Do you know of any other retailer tricks? What are some more examples of psych marketing?


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  1. That Guy At Work

    I didn’t know about tip #3. Thanks Jeff! Although I suppose if I’m hellbent on buying item X its price is irrelevant…

    • JPorretto

      Yes, sometimes you just have to pay up. They know it, you know it, just try to keep it to a minimum…

  2. Jana Quinn

    They always get me on number 1. Aren’t there some deals that ARE only at a discount if you buy a certain number of products? I think that knowing that those restrictions do occasionally exist make me go buy more than I need in the moment. However, if I don’t need 10 of something, sometimes that 10 for $10 pushes me AWAY from the display because I don’t need so many.

    As for number five, you can bite me. SNUGGIES ARE PRICELESS.

    Another psych trick that always gets me (even though I know it!) is price anchoring. That’s when they offer a certain percentage off MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) when nobody in the whole world ever sells anything at MSRP. It’s a discount off AN IMAGINARY NUMBER. For some reason, I always think I’m getting a deal.

    • JPorretto

      Good point Jana. YES there are some deals that require you to buy the full amount, but those will be clearly marked with something like “2/$2 or 1/$1.39”

      Seeing as there is NO #5, your argument is invalid =P

      • Jana Quinn

        NUMBER FOUR. You know what I meant. Plus, your list should have been odd-numbered. Don’t you listen in meetings?

        • JPorretto

          I do listen! But this is tricky. Technically if you take my initial example, there ARE 5. But if I do that, then #4 becomes #5 and your argument is re-validated. So I cannot win this one =/

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Absolutely true! I don’t remember the last time I saw a retail outlet sell an item at the MSRP. Actually, Suncoast was probably the last chain that did—and we all know what happened to them.

      …though I strangely miss Suncoast from time to time.

      • JPorretto

        Who’s Suncoast? Ahh. I see your point…

        • Jana Quinn

          There’s still one in the Joliet Mall. They sell a fair number of used DVDs these days, and buy back your old ones. Might be why they’re surviving in this very specific DVD-to-BluRay transition.

    • Jill Tooley

      You and me both! Those damn MSRP prices get me to do a double take every single time!

  3. ASneed

    Great blog Jeff! I try to be a good shopper, and I use most of your tips already, and you’re right, these tricks do suck people in to buy more. Way to help us all save some money! =)

    But sometimes those 10 for $10 are worth it, you just have to know what their regular prices are….I wonder if there’s a limit on them..?

    • JPorretto

      Yes, the 10 for 10’s ARE a great deal, but the point is that you can buy whatever quantity you want. 10 for 10 just sounds pretty. Man they really got their hooks in you! =)

      • ASneed

        I know, I know. You can get any of the 10 for $10 in any quantity, like 2 for $2, etc. 😉 I just meant that some of the items are worth stocking up on and some are not, I’ve found that a lot of these items are around $1 anyway.

        But I agree with you, this sales makes a lot of people feel like they have to buy 10.

  4. Juliette

    #2 is the one that I usually catch. But unless I really go through something quickly I’ll happily only take one for half off the normal price.

    One thing I am always amused by is how stores love to price things so they end in .99 or .98 rather than rounding up to the dollar. I guess $3.99 is supposed to look so much less expensive to our minds than $4.00.

    • JPorretto

      I’ve read studies that show it DOES work. Very well in fact. Just seeing the 3 next to the $ sign keeps it in the $3 range in peoples minds instead of the $4 range.

      • Juliette

        Sometimes I wish it did on me! I have that bad habit of rounding everything up. Even if it’s only at the .50 mark.

        I can see how much of a difference it makes on higher prices though. I mean, $99.99 even sounds much cheaper than $100.

  5. Jill Tooley

    Thanks for the shopping advice, Jeff! The only time I’ll go for the “10 for $10” is if it’s something I use a lot, like spaghetti sauce or soup. I’m much more likely to fall for the “3 for $5” for some reason…maybe it’s the lower price that makes me feel like I’m getting a steal. I always walk right past the “buy one, get one 50% off” sales unless it’s an undeniably good deal – I can never justify buying a $6 box of cereal even if I’m getting the second one for half that!

    • JPorretto

      Yeah, I’m not sure they don’t jack up the price of that first one sometimes to just make you think you’re getting a deal…. grrr.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      BOGO always gets me. I’ve walked into too many shoe stores because of their BOGO advertisements. I justify it by believing that I would’ve bought pairs anyway, but it would’ve been smarter just to walk past.

  6. Joseph Giorgi

    I have the advantage when it comes to #3. The best deals are always near the top shelf. 😉 On the other hand, I often spend huge amounts of time looking for the simple things that are normally stacked in the middle-to-bottom shelves. 🙁

    I’ve never actually fallen victim to #1, but there was one instance a few years ago when I almost did. I was wandering through the store without a cart (I only needed a couple things that day), and I happened upon a “10 for 10” deal in the soup section. I tried for a few minutes to find a way to cradle all the cans in my arms (in addition to what I was already carrying) but I couldn’t. Then I stopped and said to myself, “What the hell am I doing? I don’t need all this soup.”

    Hmmm, that story sounded funnier in my head. I guess you just had to be there.

    Anyway, awesome post!

    • JPorretto

      No, no. That was plenty funny just reading it! Thanks for the visual of you fumbling cans of soup! Hahaha!

      • ASneed

        That’s exactly what I was thinking! I’ve done that at Aldi, when I don’t have a quarter, lol. It’s not fun! =(

  7. cyberneticSAM

    Ahh yes, we humans are prone to be the victims of pseudo-bargains. I think it all stems from our enviroment. We always want more for our money, which is the case with some of these deals, but you are right, you don’t need 10 jars of jelly. To often do we fall into these traps. People who were a part of the depression (and our generation growing up in a recession) often want as much as we can get for a small price. We are aware of the absurdity of the deal, yet we get some sort of comfort knowing we got a deal. Not to mention, if you are paranoid about the world ending, then 10 jars of jelly is an amazing deal! Which is where I fall – when the end comes I will have my PB&J’s stocked up and I will eat them with satisfaction knowing I got a bargain. 🙂
    Great post!

    • JPorretto

      Thanks Sam! Mmmm… PB&J’s.

      But I’m not sure everyone is as aware of the absurdity as you are. Ignorance is bliss =)

    • ASneed

      This makes me think of Extreme Couponing. I finally figured out when it’s on, and recorded it. It’s amazing! They get their “stock piles’ started, and soon enough, they have shelves full of things that were close to free! In this case, I would stock up on things. I would love to have a stockpile of stuff in my house so I didn’t have to buy as much week to week. The episode I watched last night, a lady got $500 in groceries for like $20. It was crazy!

      • Jana Quinn

        Extreme Couponing: Hoarders on the Budget

        The things they primarily stock up on are nonperishables like toothpaste and toilet paper. But there was one episode where I saw a man had over 400 tubes of toothpaste. How much toothpaste do you usually use? A tube will generally last me about 6 months if not more. With 400 stockpiled, you could use a new tube every month for more than 30 years. That’s just unnecessary, and in this case, they’ve spent MORE than they needed to.

        I do like watching the episodes where they donate large portions of their stockpile to troops and homeless shelters. If I ever won the lottery, I think I could be a full time extreme couponer for a cause like that.

        • ASneed

          I know what you mean, but at the same time, if all that toothpaste was free, I’d take it for sure. I’d distribute it around the office and to my family, lol. I probably go through a tube every 2-3 months.

          The episodes I’ve seen are ones where almost their whole shopping trip is free. For free, I’d stock up on anything! It would be awesome to only have to fill in the gaps from your stockpile.

          I’m seriously going to figure out which stores offer double coupon days and learn how to do this.

  8. ASneed

    Something that I have been noticing about certain items at Walmart is the regular vs. family size options. I see things like this all the time:
    Regular Size: $2 for 10 oz.
    Family Size: $4 for 18 oz.
    So people immediately assume that the Family size is the cheaper, more for your money option, so they buy 1 family size box, when really they would get more for their money if they bought 2 regular size boxes. So I think that would be another good way to not get sucked in to spend more, read the labels and price points more carefully.

    • JPorretto

      Good lookin’ out Mrs. Sneed! Almost EVERY item in a grocery store should have “Price per Ounce” on the label. For items you use a lot of, buy the cheapest per ounce. For items you don’t use much of, buy the cheapest item overall. =)

    • Juliette

      I’ve noticed that too! Also, when they break out those deals have you noticed that often on pricing label they’ll show the price per oz but not on the other one?

    • Juliette

      Er.. “one one they’ll show…”

      In any case, it’s a good reason to whip out a phone with a calculator to check for the better value, especially if you’re on a budget.

  9. Mandy Kilinskis

    I think I’ve been a sucker for all of these at one point or another. The urge to get a “deal” is too strong to resist! Can we talk about clearance items? For some reason I always feel the need to walk past clearance shelves/racks, and all of a sudden, my cart is full of clothes and items that I really don’t need. But they’re on clearance, so I am getting a super deal, right? No, I’m just down forty dollars and I now have three shirts that I definitely didn’t need.

    The exception to clearance madness is Tassimo discs, naturally.

    • JPorretto


      You understand it. A one million dollar item 90% off will still bankrupt you because ITS STILL A MILLION DOLLARS.

  10. LK

    I am pretty good at NOT actually buying the 10 for $10 deals (shocking I know). I ALWAYS see yogurt on sale at 10 for $10 and I can never get myself to buy 10 yogurts. I figure I’ll have to throw at least 2 or 3 of them out because I won’t get around to eating them before they expire.
    However, if we’re talking about Mac N Cheese, or something that won’t expire by the time I get around to having 10 of them, maybe I’d consider it more.

    Even though I am aware of most of these tricks, I still give in to them. My brain just won’t let me accept that they are just trying to trick me into buying.

  11. LK

    “The store’s designers wanted you to pass as many items as possible while on your way to buy the three things you went there for in the first place.”

    This does not explain why I only needed one thing from the FRONT of the store yesterday, and was able to purchase it right then and there, in the front of the store, yet wandered all the way to the back of the store to make unnecessary purchases.


    • JPorretto

      Well SOME things have to be at the front of the store =) They have to put some nice stuff there to draw you in. As you have found… it works like a charm.

  12. Michelle

    Being the amazing shopper that I am, those deals don’t fool me. I learned at a young age (thank you Mom) that you don’t need to actually buy the number they suggest, one will be the same unit price as ten. Although I don’t fall for these particular tricks, I get sucked into other lovely ones. Which explains my shopping adventure in Target last night…they get me everytime.

    • JPorretto

      I’ve never met someone immune to Target. I can’t ever seem to leave that place empty handed.

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