13 tricks retailers use in stores and online to make you overspend — and keep coming back for more

They've got you hooked.

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They’ve got you hooked.
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Scott Olson/Getty Images

  • Retail is rife with strategies to get you to spend more, whether you’re shopping in a brick-and-mortar store or online.
  • Retailers also have tricks to make you use up their products faster.
  • Those tactics include offering free shipping, encouraging bulk purchases – and even making the holes in eye drop bottles bigger, so you run out fast.

Retailers are smart. They know your weaknesses and how to capitalize on them.

So every time you go shopping – online or IRL – you’re being taunted by infinite reasons to buy more, more, more.

Below is a list of some of the most creative (and frankly, impressive) strategies stores use to make you overspend and run out of products faster. Read on to avoid getting tricked.


They constantly change the location of products

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Can’t find the trail mix even though you just picked some up a few weeks ago? Don’t be surprised.

Business Insider’s Áine Cain reported that Costco moves around its products in order to keep you moving around, scanning the shelves and ultimately buying more.

And it’s a tactic that other stores use as well.


They allow you to check out with a single click

Business Insider previously reported on how a one-click checkout process (like on Amazon) can encourage overspending.

Because you don’t need to enter billing, shipping, or credit card information, there’s no immediate obstacle to buying whatever you want or need. That’s great if you’re in a rush – but not so great if you’re on a budget.


They offer free shipping

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Free shipping should be good for our wallets – after all, it means cutting the overall price of a purchase.

Alas, it’s not always.

If the free-shipping threshold is, say, $50, you’re more inclined to try to spend $50 (instead of the smaller amount you were planning to spend) so you can get them delivered gratis.

Somewhat counterintuitively, “Most people would rather spend more money buying things they don’t need than pay for shipping costs,” money-saving expert Andrea Woroch previously told Business Insider in an email.


They make the holes in eye drops too large

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Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

ProPublica reports that the reason eye drops overflow your eyes is because drug companies make the standard drop larger than the human eye can hold at once. In other words, you’re throwing money away every time you buy a bottle of eye drops because half the liquid is wasted.


They allow you to return items for free

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Flickr / Nan Palmero

Companies with free-return policies (think Zappos) aren’t just nice – they’re smart.

One 2012 study, published in the Journal of Marketing, looked at customers’ habits over roughly 49 months at two major online retailers. Results showed that after free-return shipping policies began, average spending per customer increased by about $620 over two years at one retailer – and by about $2,500 at the other retailer.


They follow you around the internet with ‘reminder ads’

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Joshua Rawson-Harris / Unsplash

In January 2018, Google debuted a new feature that would allow users to mute “reminder ads” on websites and in apps. Reminder ads are those advertisements for shoes – or any other product – that have been following you around online since you checked them out a few days ago.

One caveat: You can’t turn off all reminder ads automatically; you have to opt out of them on a case-by-case basis, The Guardian reported.

That means you may still be haunted by the ghost of those shoes you sort-of-wanted-but-didn’t-really-need – and depending on how much willpower you have, you may cave and buy them.


They give you bigger straws so you finish your drinks faster

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Flickr/Sarah_Ackerman

On a Reddit thread dedicated to sharing tricks that store owners use to get customers to spend more money, beast77 wrote: “My dad owns a college bar in Lincoln NE, and he uses bigger straws to get people to drink faster, and then buy more drinks.”


They deliberately slow down older phones

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Flickr/Jhaymesisviphotography

It’s not just your imagination.

As Business Insider’s Kif Leswing reported, “Apple is limiting how much power an iPhone processor can draw in certain circumstances, therefore limiting the processor’s peak performance.”

According to Apple, the reason for this is that it’s controlling how much power older phones can draw so the phone doesn’t suddenly shut down.

How can you solve this problem? Buy a new one.


They encourage you to buy food in bulk, whether you actually eat it or not

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Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A logical theory is that buying in bulk saves you money. A single loaf of bread might cost $4, but five loaves of bread might cost $15.

That’s $5 saved, right?! Not so fast.

According to a study led by Victoria Ligon at the University of Arizona, consumers try to food-shop for the week or two ahead, when in reality, we don’t plan that far in advance. So we end up ordering takeout or meeting up with a friend, and all that bread we bought ends up going stale.

“All of our food promotions are designed to get people to buy more,” said Anita Bhappu, Ligon’s advisor. “We believe it’s cheaper if we buy more now, but we rarely take into account how much we throw out in the end. And if you factor in the cost of what you are throwing away, it is very unlikely that you are saving anything.”


They label food with confusing expiration dates

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Shutterstock

Expiration dates have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, as people have started to realize that you don’t have to throw food away (wasting money in the process) just because the “best by” date has passed.

According to the USDA, food dates refer to product quality, not safety – except in the case of infant formula.

From the USDA website:

• A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

• A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.

• A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.


They tell you to ‘rinse and repeat’

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Jun Seita/Flickr

The “rinse” step? Necessary – you don’t want to show up to work with suds in your hair.

The “repeat” part? That’s mostly a waste of time and money.

“Do not rinse and repeat. Usually one shampoo is efficient enough to wash away build-up,” celebrity hairstylist Sarah Potempa told TODAY.


They advertise ‘limited time offers’

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Getty Images / Ben A. Pruchnie

We’re more inclined to purchase something if we think it might be gone tomorrow. Psychologists call it the scarcity principle, or the scarcity heuristic.

Business Insider previously reported on a classic study published in 1975 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which illustrates this principle in action. A total of 200 people were presented with either a jar with 10 cookies or a jar with two cookies. Results showed that people consistently rated the cookies in the emptier jar as more valuable.

Outside the laboratory, if you find out a pair of shoes is on sale today only, you’re more likely to snap them up than if you think they might be discounted for a while.


They hand out free samples of food

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Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Technically, you’re under no obligation to buy anything that you taste in the supermarket. But retailers know how guilty you may feel if you don’t.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls it the “rule for reciprocation“: If someone does something nice for you, you’re more inclined to do something nice for them.

In a 2002 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, customers who were offered chocolate by their waiter tipped up to 21% more than customers who weren’t offered any chocolate.