Don't be fooled by the bright lights, attractive displays and what you may perceive as the benign nature of shopping. When you walk into the mall this holiday season, you're entering a sophisticated game of psychological chess that's aimed at making you overspend.
To avoid losing your shirt, you need to know what moves might be used against you and how you can go in prepared.
"Planning, preparation and research are the best things you can do at the holiday season," says Benjamin K. Glaser, features editor at DealNews, a bargain shopping site that publishes guides on when and how to get the best holiday deals. "Have a clear shopping list, a budget and do your research."
Here are the retail tricks to watch for and how to play the game.
Free gift trick: Who doesn't want something for free? And the first thing you see when you walk into the department store is a big blazing banner that offers a "free gift with purchase." So, who cares that the purchase involves cosmetics that aren't on your gift list? You do use cosmetics, and free is free, right?
Cosmetics are one of the highest profit items in a department store, which is why cosmetics departments are front and center when you walk in the door. Moreover, unless you're extremely brand-loyal or have delicate skin, there may be little difference between $30 bottle of concealer that you buy a Nordstrom (JWN) vs. the $10 bottle sold at CVS (CVS). If the concealers are equivalent, you're paying $20 for that "free" package of mini-lipsticks, which may not be much of a bargain.
What should you do? Consider what you'd normally buy and the cost of buying the alternative product at the mall. Subtract to calculate the cost of the "gift." And beware the "minimum purchase" requirements. A recent Nordstrom promotion of Clinique cosmetics, for example, offers a free gift -- as long as you purchase something for at least $29.
The problem? None of the advertised cosmetics cost $29. Indeed the items that are close -- the $27 concealer, the $26 moisturizing gel, the eye shadow package for $28.50 -- don't qualify for the gift, so you'd have to buy a second product and vastly exceed the minimum purchase requirement.
So, let's say you're spending $40 to get that free gift. If you looked at the "gift" as a product with a $40 price tag would you buy it? If not, walk away.
Two for one: Like the free gift offer, the concept behind "buy one, get one free" offers is that you're going to focus on what's free rather than the cost of what you're buying. Ask yourself, do I want or need two? If not, is this a good price for the one item I'm buying? If it is, buy what you want and give the spare to charity.
What if it's a good price for two, but not one? If you have a friend who wants the same item and is willing to split the cost, you've got a deal. Otherwise, this offer is no bargain.
Scarcity ploy: There you are ready to pick up an item on your shopping list that appears to be well priced. But the sign has a caveat: "No more than three per customer." Now you wonder whether you ought to buy more. After all, if you can only have three, this must be a great deal. And the availability must be scarce enough that they've got to hold back rabid consumers like you.
Or not. The scarcity ploy is one of six psychological sales techniques recommended in a book called "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," by Robert Cialdini.
Beth Morgan, who dubs herself the Marketing Nerdist, says it's particularly effective at bringing out the inner teen in all of us -- you only want the things you can't have.
The scarcity principal applies to many products during the holiday season, from restricted quantities to seasonal sales to deals that are only good on one day, such as Black Friday. Act like a grown-up, and buy only what you need.
Black Friday fatigue: The scarcity ploy coupled with some truly great prices on big-ticket items, such as electronics, can convince some dedicated shoppers to engage in parking-lot camp-outs to make sure they're first in line.
But now you're tired. Probably not as sharp as you would have been with a full night's sleep. And your resistance to other, less-impressive bargains is low.
The best way to combat fatigue spending is with planning. Make a shopping list, and search for the best prices for those items before you go out. If this store happens to offer real bargains on all of your needs, rejoice and retire from holiday shopping early. But don't deviate from the list or pay more than you should just because you're sleepy.
"Reference" retail bargains: You see the sign: 75 percent off! Buy it quick! Retailers know we're predisposed to react to steep discounts from regular prices. But regular prices aren't always what they appear, particularly when they're labeled "reference retail."
What's reference retail? It's supposed to be the price that another retailer might charge for the same item, said Gerard Tellis, professor of marketing and management at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California. But this could be the retail price for a name brand (rather than the off-brand item you're considering), or it could be the price charged by a luxury retailer.
What it's not likely to be is the price this retailer would charge on another day when the item isn't on "sale."
How do you know whether this is a real deal? You can find out with a swipe of your smart phone. Download Red Laser or Shop Savvy phone apps before you head to the mall. Both read bar codes and search for the best prices available in stores and online.
Impulse gauntlet: It's hard to walk out of a store without loading your cart with a bunch of small impulse purchases. The store is designed that way. Check-out aisles, for example, are lined with stocking-stuffer fodder, from scarves and gloves to gift cards.
Remember that even small items purchased in quantity can prove to be budget busters, so your mission is to stick to your program. If you started right, you should have a list of everything you need -- including the little things you plan to put in the kid's stockings. Stick to the list, and you might just get through the holiday season without the traditional January debt hangover.