"Only 3 Left In Stock" Is Sometimes A Lie — And 10 Other Ways You're Tricked Into Shopping

by Megan Grant

If you've ever shopped at a store with dollar bins, then you're probably aware of that sinking feeling in your gut, when you know you're about to buy a bunch of stuff you don't even need just because it's a dollar. Of course you need that disposable tablecloth with cartoon turkeys on it, even though it's July and you don't have a kitchen table. The dollar bins are no accident; they're one of many ways you're tricked into spending more money than you should when you go shopping. And it works, doesn't it?

Even the most money-savvy humans can get tricked by these clever marketing tactics; and the dollar bins aren't the only ones you're running into. Even when you don't notice it, stores and restaurants are working overtime to squeeze every last dollar out of you with silent ninja tricks that go unnoticed even to the most trained eye. You keep swiping your card until you've worn it down into a plastic stub, and before you know it, your bank account has gone from, "Yo, you're going to be able to pay off your student loan debt soon," to, "Yo, you're having ramen for dinner."

If you want to be a smarter shopper and save a buck or two, be on the lookout for these common methods stores employ to get you to spend more cash.


Big, Red "Sale" Signs

It might be the lamest sale ever. It might only be on products you don't care about. But the sign got you in the door, right? And why do you think it's red? What does red symbolize in our culture? Stop. Pay attention.

Stop. Pay attention. There's a huge sale here you can't miss.


Creating A Sense Of Urgency Or Scarcity

"For a limited time only" and "Hurry! Only 3 left in stock": two phrases that are certain to get you to buy now — and stores know this. I'm going to tell you something you might not want to hear: they don't have three left. They might have dozens. Or hundreds. Yes, it's true... they lied.

Creating a sense of urgency is a common way stores and marketing folks get you to purchase, and purchase now. We fear we might not get the opportunity again, so why wait? Why does this even work? It's FOMO, plain and simple: we're so scared of missing out, that we just do it.


Big Shopping Carts As Soon As You Walk In

Sure, this might be a convenience thing. It's also a "get you to buy more to fill your cart" thing. When you're pushing around a big ol' cart, you're likelier to fill it up with lots of stuff, some of which you might not need. Some stores really play on this by offering even bigger carts.

Instead, grab one of those small hand baskets. This will force you to exercise a little more self-control, largely because they're a literal pain to carry once they start to get heavy.


Putting The Most Enticing Purchases In The Front

My grocery store gets me with this every time. I walk in and am greeted by colorful flowers and seasonal baked goods and ready-made sandwiches that look so delicious even though I don't eat deli meat. Most things are small and convenient enough to toss in my huge shopping cart, particularly the Halloween brownies with tiny ghosts added in thick, white frosting. The brownies will go stale before I've eaten them and I kill every plant I bring in to my home.

Grocery store: 1

Megan: 0

Why does this work so well? One reason is the smell alone — enticing scents have shown to help increase sales. It's not just because it smells so delicious and you have to have it; it's also because it makes you hungry for more, so you shop more.


Free Stuff

"Free" is widely considered to be one of the most persuasive words in the English language. "Free plus shipping" is another biggie. You'll see ads online for a free bracelet or free tote or free make-up. "Just pay shipping!"

Free samples are another common tactic, and one that works because it puts pressure on us to buy after being given something for free.


One-Click Ordering

This is dangerous. Recently, I accidentally bought a book online with one-click ordering, and it happened before I even realized what I had done. Fortunately, the book was only a couple dollars. But what if it hadn't been?

One-click ordering is becoming more common online because it makes it so easy to shop, and stores know this. We can get everything on-demand and delivered to our doors, and our patience has waned. Stores know you don't want 10 clicks to separate you and your purchase; so they've reduced it to one. Enticing. It works so well that people spend far more time shopping on Amazon than other stores, with its famous one-click option, and return to shop more often.


Expensive Stuff Is Always Eye Level

How much time do you spend kneeling in the grocery store aisle, looking at things on the bottom shelf? Hardly ever, right? Stores know you like convenience, which means having everything you need right in front of your face. Knowing this, what do you think they're going to put right in front of your face? I'll give you a hint: it won't be the cheap-o generic brand of whatever you need.


Inexpensive Extras At Checkout

Gum. Beef jerky. Tabloids. Lip balm. All of it's cheap and tiny, which makes it even easier to toss it in with the rest of your purchases. These are like the ever deceiving dollar bins. Also, you have the least amount of willpower when you've finished shopping, meaning you're likelier to make these impulse purchases. You don't know what happened, but suddenly, you've spent an extra $15 on big red, a key chain flashlight, and Soap Opera Digest. By the way, you don't watch soap operas.


Must-Haves Are In The Back

You ever notice how you have to walk the furthest for milk, cheese, eggs, the stuff you can't live without? Maybe that's not an accident. It gets you to see the entire store — and all the other cool stuff you could buy. Why make it easy when they could get you to spend more?


The Trick Of Bulk Bargains

How often do you buy 10 of one product so you can get the sale price per unit? The store isn't just trying to do you a favor; they're getting you to commit to buying more so they can make more money, even if you might (might) be saving a buck or two in the process. But really, do you have room for 10 boxes of super plus tampons in your teeny closet right now?


The "Decoy Effect"

The decoy effect has a couple different explanations based on who you ask. One says that to trick customers into buying what you want them to buy, you offer them three options: a cheap version, an expensive version, and one in the middle that's still priced closer to the expensive one. This acts as a "middle" option, and the shopper views it as a good compromise; but then they think: Why not just buy the expensive one, since it's only a little more?

Others explain the decoy effect like this: if you're trying to get shoppers to buy something — especially an expensive item — offer another version for an even higher price; the original option will look like a better deal, and they'll be likelier to buy.

Either way, you give 'em your money.