How Big Box Stores Manipulate Us Into Buying More than We Planned or Want

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: we judiciously make a list of things that we need, head to a big box store like Walmart, Costco, Target — and the list goes on — and then come back home with all kinds of stuff that we had no prior intention of purchasing, and frankly don’t even need or want (or both).

What’s going on!? Did we wander into some kind of shopping Twilight Zone and have our minds controlled by evil corporate forces? No. Well, not really.

Here’s the thing: big box stores — and even many smaller stores, especially if they are part of a chain — don’t just put stuff on shelves and hope people buy. Rather, everything from the layout to the lighting and even the smells (yes, the smells!) are carefully and meticulously engineered to achieve one goal: to get people to buy more, more, and yet still more.

Sound far-fetched? Or maybe like a conspiracy theory? If only that were the case. But this is a real thing, and has been studied and documented by consumer psychologists — not by people in tinfoil hats waiting for the apocalypse. Here are just some of the many tactics in the consumer manipulation playbook:

  • Costco’s mind-boggling store layout — which is probably better described as an anti-layout, because it seems like they don’t think twice about stacking pallets here and setting up food sample stations there — is anything but accidental. The idea is to compel shoppers to wander around, like they’re at a flea market. The more wandering they do, the more likely they are to put something in their cart. Costco also routinely moves around certain products — not because they run out of shelf space or can’t be bothered to be consistent — but because, yes, you guessed it: they want shoppers to wander around aimlessly vs. get in and get out.
  • Target deliberately puts seasonal stuff in the back (in most stores), so that shoppers need to walk through the entire space before getting there — and are therefore more likely to toss something into their cart. What’s more, Target regularly rotates certain products in and out of its stores, because they want shoppers who come across interesting or desirable items to say “hey, I’d better buy this right now because it might not be here next time!”.
  • Ever wonder why Walmart puts bakeries toward the front of the store? Because the odor creates a warm and welcoming feel — which ultimately encourages people to let their guard down and buy more stuff. And of course, it should really come as no surprise that the items they stack at checkout — everything from candy and snacks to gift cards and stuff you see on Infomercials — are there to trigger an impulse buy. That’s why they’re relatively inexpensive and small (i.e. super easy to toss into a cart that might already have tons of stuff in it).

So, the next time you head into a big box store, don’t assume that the layout, the colors, the lighting, the smells, or anything else is random, or that it abides by modern office design principles like you would find in a dentist’s office or corporate headquarters. It’s all about getting you to buy, buy and buy some more. Your job is to be aware, stay focused, and refuse to be manipulated. That’s how you win!

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