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6 Sneaky Ways Retailers Get You to Spend More

Avoid these budget-busting traps when shopping online


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From countdown clocks to freebies, online retailers go to great lengths to get you to spend more. They know consumers are an emotional bunch who tend to act when there’s a sense of urgency or a deal to be found.

Those marketing ploys typically reach a fever pitch in the lead-up to the holidays, the busiest time of year for online retailers.

“It’s all about trying to get consumers to spend more money than they initially plan,” says Shelley Kohan, retail instructor at Syracuse University. “You see a lot of these types of tactics during the holiday season.”

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Before you fall prey and bust your budget, here’s a look at some of the common tricks and traps and how you can resist them. 

1. Free gifts

​Who doesn’t like a free gift? But if it requires you to spend more, is it really free? Many retailers will offer gifts or free shipping if you spend a specific amount of money online and in store. It can be too tantalizing to turn down, and many consumers spend more to reach the threshold.

2. BOGO deals

BOGO deals — short for “buy one, get one” — are another common tactic that can turn into a money trap. With this ploy, retailers give you a percentage off when you buy another of the same or like items. You’ll see it around the holidays for everything from sweaters to bedding. 

3. Product bundles

Online retailers often bundle related products together, say a coffee machine and coffee beans, and offer it as a single purchase. In other instances the more you buy, the more you save. The catch: Often, the bundle discount is small or the add-on isn’t necessary.

How to resist these come-ons: If the free gift is irresistible, Kristin McGrath, shopping expert at RetailMeNot, says to ask yourself whether you would spend the money without a gift and whether it is cheaper elsewhere. The same approach goes for BOGO and bundle deals. The idea is to focus on the bottom-line cost and what you really need. “An item you didn’t even know you wanted has a BOGO offer attached, and now you just have to have the deal,” says McGrath. “But it’s only a deal if you needed the item in the first place.” 

4. Countdown clocks 

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is real when it comes to shopping, which is why countdown clocks are so effective. Online retailers employ these clocks when running a limited-time sale or when they want you to think you’re getting something of great value only if you act now. The idea is to create a sense of urgency. 

5. Inventory trackers

Inventory trackers are another way retailers get you to buy now.  When you’re shopping for an item online, the site will tell you how many people are looking at it or how much is left in stock. If you were on the fence, retailers hope to push you to check out.

How to resist countdown clocks and inventory trackers: Sticking to your list and your budget is the best way to avoid FOMO. If you see something you do want, do some research before making the purchase, but don’t wait too long. Kohan says retailers' inventories are tight this year and if a site says three left in stock it’s probably a lot more realistic than in years past. “If you really want it, it’s a big risk to walk away and hope you get it before the end of the holiday season,” Kohan says.

6. Email and text discounts

Retailers offer online discounts on your first purchase when you sign up to receive emails and texts. In exchange for a discount, you provide the retailer with some personal information and welcome them to reach out again. That can result in a lot of unwanted correspondence.

How to resist email and text deals: If you don’t mind giving up your data and you plan to buy the product anyway, signing up for emails and texts can save you money. After you get the deal, Kohan says you can unsubscribe to emails and block the texts, but you have to be proactive. “It can be beneficial but you’ll get a lot of texts from different markets,” she says.

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