Avoiding overspending can be a big challenge during the holidays when good intentions can trip up even the most careful budgeters. Indeed, retailers do their best to take advantage of the splurge season and squeeze every last dollar out of their customers' more generous spirit.
Fortunately, you don't have to be the one to put the extra jingle in their cash registers this holiday season. Here, we'll take a look at the key tactics retailers are using and how you can skate right around their traps ...
1) Pricing ploys
The holiday flyers that are stuffed in your mailbox this time of year are not really designed to advertise cheap goods — they're to get you into the store. This tactic is called a loss leader, and it's often used on big shopping days such as Boxing Day, where truly deep discounts are few and far between, and higher priced items are often what's really on the menu. After all, when you rush out to buy a $10 jacket only to discover that it looks like, well, a $10 jacket, you're more likely to buy something else, even if it's barely discounted.
If you still have Christmas kitsch that never made its way into anyone's gift basket last year, you may also be familiar with another retailer tactic called bundling, wherein items are sold in groups at a lower price per item. But just because you found the perfect thing for someone on your list doesn't mean it's the perfect thing for everyone on your list, so avoid buying more than you need.
2) A blueprint for buying
Discount retailers and big box stores might provide a shopping cart as soon as you enter the parking lot or walk in the front door, but what you may view as convenient is really a psychological cue that's designed to put you in shopping mode and give you the impression that the goods are so cheap, you can afford to fill your cart. When you obligingly fill it to the brim, you're following the store's lead — and probably bringing home a lot more loot than you intended. This is the same tactic at play in discount bins, which can be used to create the impression of a deal, even when the goods aren't on sale.
3) Rebate run-arounds
Retailers often use rebates, particularly on electronics, to advertise lower prices. But while there's nothing wrong with considering a rebate when you're shopping for the best price, keep in mind that many retailers offer discounts this way because there's a good chance shoppers won't redeem them. In the industry, this is called "breakage," and many stores make the assumption that a certain amount of this will occur when they estimate their profits. This is why many rebates are relatively small and notoriously (and deliberately) difficult to cash in; if it's only $25 (on $500!), you're likely to give up.
4) What you see is what you get
Have you ever wondered why sale items in a clothing store are often carelessly stuffed on a rack at the very back of the store, while the highest priced items are beautifully arranged at the front? Just like many aspects of store organization, this is the retailer's attempt to manipulate what you notice when you're shopping — which, of course, affects what you buy. The line in front of the cash register is another key area of which to be mindful. You may already have a full cart, but retailers often use long holiday lines to their advantage by lining them with cute little impulse buys — and plenty of time to admire them. If you leave your shopping to the last minute, this can be an especially powerful retail tactic.
5) A festive touch
In 2009, the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers who touched merchandise paid more for it than shoppers who kept their hands to themselves. Don't fool yourself: you aren't "just going to try on" that cashmere sweater. If you don't have the cash to buy it, leave it on the rack.
A penny for your troubles
More retail food for thought: Unless you're a die-hard shopper, the holiday shopping rush can be a bit of a painful experience. In fact, that's the idea. In Ellen Ruppel Shell's 2009 book, "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture", the author discusses how when buying something is a major chore, this can make it easier to justify spending more. This goes without saying: after fighting for a parking space, battling crowds to get in the door and spending half an hour in line to buy that item on your list, there's no way you're leaving without it - even if it proves to cost more than you expected.
Indeed, with Christmas carols blaring through the stores, displays piled high with gifts, and your Christmas spirit working hard to repress your inner Scrooge, it can be hard to stick to a budget. Fortunately, it just takes a little knowledge to recognize a retailer's tricks.
And yes, it's worth the trouble. You'll feel a whole lot merrier when the Christmas bills come rolling in...
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