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5 Ways Warehouse Clubs Try to Trick Shoppers Into Spending More

Avoid these traps on your next trip to Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's

A sign inside Costco greets shoppers during the coronavirus pandemic with a social distancing message about special hours for customers over 60 years old

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En español | Warehouse clubs such as Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club can offer buy-in-bulk shoppers a seemingly oversized supply of savings — but they're also full of temptations designed to lure you into shopping more and spending more. The first step to not falling for these spending traps: recognizing them. Watch out for these five tactics that warehouse clubs employ to try to get people to spend more.

1. Selling only in bulk quantities

Warehouse clubs were born from the idea that buying in bulk is a good way to save time and money. Especially in this pandemic, when many shoppers are looking to limit their trips to the store, stocking up on staples can make perfect sense. But buying in bulk isn't always a good deal — no matter what warehouse clubs would have you think. “These stores get you to spend more because items are sold in bulk or in multiples like clothing,” says budgeting expert Andrea Woroch. “Even if you don't need to purchase in bulk or multiple items, you typically buy it because it seems like such a better value."

Note, too, that Costco currently is not accepting returns on popular pandemic staples often sold in bulk quantities, including toilet paper, paper towels, disinfecting sprays, sanitizing wipes, rice and bottled water. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, BJ's has temporarily suspended returns of paper products, soaps, sanitizers, household cleaning products, batteries, medications, and any food or beverage items. In other words, if you stock up on certain products in bulk, you're stuck with them.

No matter how good of a deal you got on a food item, it’s a total waste if it’s ending up in the trash.

— budgeting expert Andrea Woroch

How you can resist

Be more thoughtful about your shopping and think about what you really need. “Make sure every purchase has a purpose,” says shopping expert Trae Bodge. “Are you going to use that five-pound bag of beans, or are you just excited that it's so inexpensive?"

Especially when it comes to bulk purchases, that means thinking ahead. Woroch plans for the next couple of weeks when she makes her shopping list. “No matter how good of a deal you got on a food item, it's a total waste if it's ending up in the trash,” she says. “This is why meal planning and using overlapping ingredients for multiple dishes for the week can really reduce your food waste."

2. Letting you linger

Before the pandemic disrupted Americans’ shopping habits, warehouse clubs encouraged customers to maximize their time at stores, along with their opportunity to spend. Store layouts were designed to be confusing and inefficient. (More on that later.) Free sample stations slowed down shoppers and tempted them into unplanned purchases. (Costco suspended sampling in early March due to coronavirus concerns, but started reintroducing it at some stores in June, with prepackaged foods and behind plexiglass shields.) Costco's food courts lured people in with their cheap eats and let them spend more of their day at the store. (They're currently offering a limited menu for takeout only.)

The COVID-19 twist to this tried-and-true strategy: special hours for older shoppers. Costco invites only members who are age 60 or older, as well as those with disabilities or compromised immune systems, to shop from 9 to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday. BJ's restricts shopping to the same age group on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 8 to 9 a.m. (and offers an “appreciation hour” at the same time on Sundays for first responders and health care workers). Sam's Club has special shopping hours for older customers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7 to 9 a.m. (and for first responders and health care workers on Sundays, from 8 to 10 a.m.). “My guess is that now that seniors can go at a set time and meander slowly through the aisles, they might spend more than before,” Bodge says.

Plus, it's the kind thing to do — which happens to be great publicity. “Having times set aside for shopping or essential workers is a wonderful way for a brand to show these groups that their special needs are being recognized,” says Roger Dooley, marketing expert and author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers With Neuromarketing. “Brands that set senior hours likely captured a greater share of their spending compared to other stores."

Go with a list and stick to it. There are many temptations in those aisles.

— shopping expert Trae Bodge

How you can resist

Make a plan, complete with a shopping list, budget and rough time limit for how long you can spend in the store. This strategy can help you stay focused and avoid overspending. “Go with a list and stick to it,” Bodge says. “There are many temptations in those aisles."

And eat before you shop. “If you go to your favorite price club with an empty stomach, you could leave sated, but you also might have a few unplanned items in your cart,” Bodge says. “Heck, you didn't know that gyoza and those sliders were so good."

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3. Promoting scarcity

The laws of supply and demand suggest that when something you want is rare, you'll pay more for it. Warehouse clubs and other retailers use this information to promote certain products in stores, through circulars and online in a way that makes you fear missing out on the item or deal. “Marketers have exploited this for years, using language like ‘limited supply’ and ‘sale ends tomorrow,’ “ Dooley says.

The novel coronavirus has been a great catalyst for this sales strategy, easily inciting fear among shoppers. “The pandemic has raised the perception of scarcity for both specific items — toilet paper — and products in general,” Dooley says. “If yeast, pork chops and beans are in short supply today, what could be scarce tomorrow?"

How you can resist

Ignore the noise, and don't let the fear of missing out (or FOMO, as the kids say) drive your shopping. Even if you do come across a seemingly great deal, give yourself a little time to really think about it. “Keep in mind your shopping list when the urge to buy something that you don't really need takes over,” Woroch says. “Walk away from the item for at least 10 minutes to let that impulsive desire to buy pass. If something appears to be a truly remarkable value, consider eliminating something else from your cart."

4. Designing spend-friendly layouts

As previously mentioned, warehouse clubs are set up to encourage aimless wandering and listless lingering because the more time you spend in the store, the more money you're likely to spend, too. In-store signage is limited for this reason. In addition, groceries and staples tend to be in the back of the store, so you have to pass and be tempted by everything else on the way. Meanwhile, big-ticket and impulse items are more likely to be displayed front and center. “It's common for wholesale clubs to put items like TVs and laptops near the entrance,” Bodge says. “It's tough to pass by without at least taking a peek."

How you can resist

Again, focus on your shopping list and put up mental blinders as you make a beeline to the products you actually need. Learning the lay of the land on your initial visit to a warehouse club can also help you plan the most efficient course through the store during subsequent shopping trips.

5. Stocking hard-to-compare items

Comparison shopping is a smart way to help ensure you're getting the best deal available on a certain product, but warehouse clubs don't make it easy. For one thing, bulk quantities can be a bit confusing when it comes to comparing prices. You have to make sure you're checking the per unit price rather than the whole sticker price.

For another, warehouse clubs offer unique items, including store-brand and exclusive products, among both their inventories of staples as well as their big-ticket electronics, such as TVs, computers and household appliances. “It's hard to compare the price with a regular retailer because a lot of warehouse-store merchandise is exclusive and may be missing certain features or made of cheaper material compared to regular retail,” Woroch says.

How you can resist

Don't give up on comparison shopping, especially on nonfood items. Woroch recommends using price-comparison app ShopSavvy to scan bar codes or search for products when you're in the store to see how similar products are priced at other nearby retailers. Other comparison apps to try include BuyViaScanLife and Shopbrain. Even if you can't find the same exact items to compare prices, you can at least find similar products and get an idea of fair value.

Also, be sure to check product specifications. “You have to inspect the item and read the fine print and features for tech and small kitchen appliances to understand what it offers and if it's really a great price,” Woroch says.