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Here’s the Sneaky Language Stores Use to Trick You Into Spending More

Shot of a man sitting on a bench with his shopping bags on the floor
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I love a good bargain as much as the next person. But I also know we live in a consumer society, in which businesses are constantly trying to make sales — even if that means tricking us poor customers into thinking we’re getting a deal when we’re not.

Whether you love to shop and are always hunting for a deal, or you prefer to save your money for essentials, chances are you’ve noticed some weird pricing language at stores, both online and in-person. What is this, and why do sellers do it?

The Power of Language When a store wants to drive a deal or sale, it might use slightly sneaky language to suggest you’re getting a better bargain than you actually are. This is called pricing psychology.

Here are a few of the worst offenders:

Size Matters

Gregory Ciotti, of the Huffington Post, cites a Carnegie-Mellon University study, which found that a DVD subscription program saw a 20% increase in people signing up for trials when the company changed its pricing language from “a $5 fee” to “a small $5 fee.” That one simple word made a big difference to that business’ bottom line.

A Penny Makes All the Difference

Another example of pricing psychology you’re probably already aware of is marking a product $2.99 instead of $3. You’re only saving 1 cent, but seeing that smaller number is more likely to entice you into buying.

This is known as “charm pricing,” explains Pius Boachie in an article for Entrepreneur.com.

To go even further, Boachie says any price ending in a 9 is likely to be seen as a better deal. A 2005 study by Manoj Thomas and Vicki Morwitz for Cornell University explains the “left digit” effect. The study found that, when the left digit of a price changed, such as from $3 to $2.99, consumers were more likely to buy than if the left digit didn’t change, such as from $3.60 to $3.59.

Similarly, Boachie cites a joint study from the University of Chicago and MIT that used women’s clothing to test out how different prices would perform. The study found that an item priced at $39 sold better than the same item priced at $34 or $44, even though it wasn’t the lowest price of the three.

The Irresistible BOGO

Another pricing strategy you’re probably familiar with is “Buy One Get One,” or “BOGO.” Some sales give you something free when you buy a full-price item, while others will offer you a second item at 50% off.

Boachie says the main motivator here is greed on the part of the consumer. You’re much less likely to balk at paying full price for something if you know you’re getting another thing for free or discounted. Whereas, if the BOGO sale didn’t exist, you probably wouldn’t have paid full price for the first item.

There are many other examples of pricing psychology, but these few give you the basic idea of what most businesses already know and are using to try and con you into thinking you’re getting a good deal when you might not be.

How to Beat Pricing Psychology

Try to leave your emotions at home when you hit the store (yes, even if you’ve had a stressful day and NEED that chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream). Shelly Frost, with Chron, explains that pricing psychology is first and foremost designed to capitalize on your emotions.

Rather than jumping at a price that seems too good to be true at first glance, ask yourself if it is truly a good deal. A lot of the time, you might find the answer is no. In other words, stop acting on an impulse when you’re at the store.

Try to stay away from the mall or online stores unless you truly need something. Even the strongest person can be sucked in when faced with good pricing-psychology strategies. Writing for The Simple Dollar, Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits, advises always making a list when you go to a store for anything and refusing to deviate from that list. That’s not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’re trying to kick a shopping habit, but your wallet will thank you for it.

Another strategy suggested by Babauta is to only use cash when you shop. You’re much less likely to fall for pricing strategies and buy things you don’t need when you have a set budget. Leave your debit and credit card at home to avoid temptation.

By becoming a more savvy consumer, you can more easily recognize when companies are trying to take advantage of you by using pricing psychology, allowing you to make more informed decisions about your purchases.

Catherine Hiles is a writer and editor living in Ohio with her husband, daughter and dog. Most of her impulse buys center around food — pizza in particular.

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