How Retailers Trick You Into Spending

posted in: Shopping Tips

You can probably think of countless times when you’ve walked into a store with two things on your list, yet you somehow walk out with ten!  How does this happen?  Well, retailers are very good at enticing you to buy more than you intended. After all, they are in the selling business!  Here are some of the key tactics that retailers use so you can keep an eye out for them and stay on budget. 

Free Samples

“Try before you buy” is a popular retailer tactic, especially when you try the product on the spot, as you might feel more obligated to buy right then. A win for the retailer.

Giving out samples to take home is another approach that can be especially effective with personal care products that you need time to fully experience the product. 

What can you do about it? Stick to your list and buy only what you intended to buy! If you fall in love with a sample that you’ve tried, add it to your list for next time.


BOGO deals, like Buy One Get One Free and Buy One, Get One ½ off, are another common trick. The goal is to encourage you to stock up or have extras to keep on hand as gifts. Shoppers can certainly use these offers to their advantage with items that they use regularly and need to have a supply of, but be wary of buying items are perishable or can lose their efficacy over time, like some foods, beauty & wellness products, and even some cleaning products.  If the items go bad, that’s wasted money.

What can you do about it? Only BOGO when you are buying something you actually need more than one of. Stop and think before buying, and look at “use by” dates.

Free shipping thresholds

Shoppers universally hate to pay for shipping, so when an etailer offers free shipping if we spend a certain amount, we often buy more just to reach the threshold. 

What can you do about it? If your purchase doesn’t meet the free shipping threshold, i.e. $25 and up, consider purchasing the items on a site that offers free shipping, arranging for curbside pickup, or just leaving the items in your virtual cart until you are ready to buy enough to score free shipping.

Deceptive return policies

Some online-only retailers advertise free returns, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. You might find exceptions in the fine print, like narrow return windows, restrictions on what you can return, etc. 

Also, when you shop online, you should never assume that an etailer offers free returns. You might be required to pay for return shipping, which can sometimes be cost prohibitive (I encountered a situation where I had to pay to return to China, which cost more than the items themselves). Some etailers charge restocking fees or only give a percentage of credit back.

What can you do about it? Whenever you order, take a moment to read the return policy if there’s any chance of needing a return. If the retailer charges for return shipping, it could make sense to opt for returning in-store or at a designated drop-off location, OR shopping elsewhere.

Creating a sense of urgency

Retailers can do things that make you feel like you have to buy something right now, or you’ll miss out. They do this by creating limited time offers, indications that other people are looking at the item (online) or that there are limited quantities available. I’ve even heard that retailers deliberately keep store shelves poorly stocked.  Any of these tactics can cause us to feel panicked and respond rashly.

What can you do about it? Ask yourself if you really need that item. And remember, in many cases, you can get that deal again and there is more product in the stockroom.

Pricing tricks

Sometimes, retailers will post signage that says, “biggest sale of the year,” or “lowest price ever.” This may be true, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy it now.

What can you do about it? Take a breath and ask yourself, “do I really need this?  Will I use this? Can I afford this? Would I pay full price for this?” If you’re unfamiliar with the item, do some research before buying, including installing the PayPal Honey browser extension if you are shopping online. Once installed, this tool will display recent pricing for this item, so you can see if the price is low right now or not. This can help to inform your decision to buy right now, wait, or not buy at all.

Free trials

It’s nice to try something before committing, but some free trials are so difficult to cancel that we might just give up and keep on paying. Another problem with free trials is that we sign up and then forget to cancel. Once our credit card is charged, it can be hard to get a refund because we accepted the terms knowingly.

What can you do about it? If you are going to partake in a free trial, always set a calendar alert for a few days before the trial ends. That way, you have time to decide whether you want to continue or cancel.

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Smart Shopping Expert

Trae Bodge is an accomplished lifestyle journalist and TV commentator who has specialized in smart shopping, personal finance, and retail for more than a decade. She has appeared on TV over 1,000 times; including Today Show, GMA3, NBC Nightly News, Inside Edition, and network affiliates nationwide. She has been named a Top Voice in Retail by LinkedIn, and her expert commentary has appeared in Forbes,, Kiplinger, Yahoo Finance, and numerous others.