Lead us not into temptation: Tips for outsmarting retailers

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, Special to

Unlocking the secrets

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Retailers use many tactics to induce shoppers to buy products they may not really want or need, or that might not be the best value. With a bit of planning, awareness and self-discipline, however, consumers determined to stick to their budgets can avoid these costly temptations.

Click ahead to learn the secrets of those retailer tricks and see the strategies shoppers can use to keep more money in their own pockets.

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin, Special to
Posted 16 Aug. 2013

Stick to the basics

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Grocers tend to put low-margin staples like milk and eggs in the back of the store, said Patricia Huddleston, professor of retailing at Michigan State University.

"What they're trying to do is make consumers look at all of the merchandise on the way to get to the staple items," she said. If a shopper needs only those basics, they should "move directly to the back of the store so that they're not tempted by all the merchandise in between."

Reach for savings

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In grocery and discount stores, consumers who want lower prices should be willing to bend down or reach up, Huddleston said. Retailers generally put the priciest, high-margin packaged consumer goods at eye level while stocking lower-priced generic or store-brand alternatives on the lower and upper shelves.

Add it up

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The largest packages don't always give shoppers the lowest price per unit, according to Huddleston.

"Consumers would be wise to compute the cost per usage, per serving, to figure out what will be the best package for them," she said. Have a calculator to figure unit prices, or use the unit-price shelf tags that retailers provide to compare true costs.

They'll get you in the end

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Items at the end of grocery store aisles—or "ends caps"—aren't necessarily the best-priced merchandise. Retailers often work with vendors to promote products in this high-value space, so do a comparison with similar items elsewhere in the store.

Check your list

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Use caution with the "loss leaders" that grocers and other retailers offer to draw customers into the store. You might be enticed by a very good deal on a six-pack of soda, but you won't necessarily get a great deal on other items, Huddleston said.

A store might have other appealing promotions as well, such as10 items for $10, and consumers will get caught up and buy items they don't really need. To resist such impulse buys, she said, make a list before you go shopping and stick to it.

Bargains in the back

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Department store layouts are designed with varying hard and soft flooring, and the hard flooring is usually the path they want shoppers to follow.

"There are a lot of layout design strategies that retailers use to get you to navigate the entire store," Huddleston said. Department stores often place sale merchandise in the back so that shoppers have to pass other products on the way. If you're looking for sale items, make a beeline for the rear of the store.

Killing you with kindness

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High-end specialty stores "will look for opportunities to help consumers stay in the store," said Huddleston.

Jewelry stores, for example, may offer to clean a customer's rings. In doing so, the retailer gets the shopper to linger for longer than she may have planned, giving her more time to look around.

In addition, salespeople providing such a service or offering to bring a shopper water or coffee may create "a psychological sense of obligation" or loyalty in the hope that you'll make a purchase, she said.

Be on a mission

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Through their promotions and product offerings, retailers try to influence or even prevent comparison shopping, said Daniel Bartels, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Regardless of the approach or type of retailer, shoppers can use their own strategy to avoid buying what they don't need. It starts with having a very clear idea of what you want before you go shopping, he said.

If you know what you want before you hit the store or the website, Bartels said, when you're there you can just focus on buying that item.

Taking stock

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Whether shopping for school or vacation, prepare by making a list for each child of what's needed. Then take an inventory of what you already have and shop for what you don't have, looking for the best value by comparison shopping, said Paul Richard, president of the Institute of Consumer Financial Education.

Shoppers must exert financial discipline to walk past all the promotions and must remember that people have needs, wants and wishes.

"Take care of the needs," said Richard. "When we're out spending money we're always making a decision to give up something that we value less for something we value more," he said. "People need to value their money more and more, in my view."