The tricks and traps marketers use to get us to buy things are more widespread and manipulative than ever before. They range from advertising ploys and clever language to audio and visual cues. How they do it…


When the economy falters, companies try to sell us memories of happier times. Nearly 35% of brands now are using nostalgia in their ad campaigns.

Examples: Mountain Dew, Doritos and Pepsi are among the products currently available in packaging designed to look like the packaging of decades ago.

Psychologists believe our minds paint rosy pictures of the past to help us continue to move forward during hard times—we’re more likely to believe today’s problems are just temporary if we remember most of our life as being pretty enjoyable. It’s why we’re likely to buy products with labeling that recalls the past, even if we weren’t really in love with that product back then.

People over age 50 are particularly likely to be hit with nostalgic sales pitches—the older we get, the more intense our longing becomes for the past.

What to do: When you find yourself reaching for a product that has a label or slogan designed to evoke past decades, pause and ask yourself, Do I really need this product…or am I trying to buy a happy memory of the past? If it is the latter, don’t buy the product—you already have that happy memory for free.


Stand in front of a new luxury car, high-end HDTV or pricey piece of jewelry in a showroom these days, and a salesperson is likely to assure you that the item is “a good investment” or “an investment you can enjoy.” The salesperson is likely to avoid entirely words such as “purchase, “spend” and “cost.”

Fewer shoppers will splurge on pricey products in this economy, but retailers have discovered that shoppers’ minds become less resistant to forking over large amounts of cash when the word “investment” is used. Trouble is, consumer products are not investments. Investments are things likely to increase in value—virtually all consumer products decline in value.

What to do: When you hear the word “investment” from a retail salesperson, mentally replace it with the word “purchase.”


Department stores now make it intentionally difficult to locate certain products on their shelves. These hard-to-find items might include heavily advertised discounted items or staples that many shoppers need. Hiding these products in unexpected sections of the store forces shoppers to spend more time searching aisles, which increases the odds that they will buy other items, too.

Hiding discounted items also gives the sales staff a chance to lead customers to these deals, which makes those customers feel good and included, increasing their loyalty to the store.

More store-layout and time-management tricks…

Various stores, including supermarkets, are installing speed bumps—textured sections of flooring. They have discovered that shoppers pushing carts slow down and pay more attention when they roll over bumpy flooring, increasing sales of nearby products by up to 6%. Stores often place premium products and things that shoppers don’t really need on the shelves near these speed bumps.

Self-defense: When your shopping cart rolls over textured flooring, consider it a reminder that the store is trying to manipulate you into noticing and buying the products placed nearby.

• Most supermarkets now have their entrance on the right to encourage customers to move counterclockwise through the store. Research has found that counterclockwise shoppers spend up to 7% more, possibly because most people are right-handed and counter-clockwise shopping makes it slightly easier to grab items with the right hand.

Self-defense: If the store entrance is on the right, cut across the store immediately after entering and shop left to right.

Muzak is getting slower. The slower the beat of background music, the longer shoppers stay in the store and the more they spend. Some businesses are even customizing their background music to specific areas within the store to subtly influence shoppers.

Example: Some supermarkets add subtle sound effects that evoke pleasant memories of the products found in that particular aisle—ice clinking in a glass in the beverage section or steak sizzling in the meats section.

Self-defense: Wear headphones and listen to fast-paced music while shopping. If you really want to save money, choose music that you don’t like very much—your shopping trips will be faster and less expensive.


Many foods in the typical supermarket—ranging from marmalade to fish—are older than we are led to believe. Even produce isn’t necessarily as fresh as we think—the typical supermarket apple has been off the tree for 14 months. But supermarkets know that our minds tend to associate freshness with healthfulness and goodness, so they have developed strategies to trick us into believing that their food actually is very fresh…

• Products closely associated with freshness, such as fresh-cut flowers and fresh fruit, are placed right by the entrance. Seeing fresh-looking things when we first walk in the door primes our minds to associate the whole store with freshness.

• Produce prices are displayed on what appear to be chalkboards. This gives the impression that new produce arrives so often that the prices must be updated frequently. But these “chalkboards” usually are just preprinted signs designed to look as if they were written in chalk.

• Seafood is displayed on crushed ice—even though modern refrigerator cases don’t need ice to keep seafood at the right temperature. Our minds associate ice with a lack of spoilage.

• Packaged products are placed near fresh products, creating a sense of freshness by association in our minds.

Example: A display of high-end salsas or salad dressings might be placed in the fresh-produce section of a supermarket, creating the possibly false impression that these are fresher or healthier than cheaper salsas and salad dressings found elsewhere in the store.

Self-defense: If freshness is something you value, shop at farmers’ markets. Do not pay premium prices for freshness at high-end supermarkets such as Whole Foods—you may be paying for the illusion of freshness there, too.