Holiday Tricks Stores Use to Make You Spend More (and How to Shop Smarter)

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, ‘tis the season of temptations—and we’re not talking about second servings. Have you ever walked into a store with every intention of sticking to a budget, only to walk out with overstuffed bags and a smaller savings account? 

Your over-shopping wasn’t an accident! Turns out, it’s a psychological response to the messages retailers and communication experts have been perfecting all year to get you to spend, spend, spend.

Even now, malls are already bedecked with holiday decorations, peppermint perfumes have begun to scent the air, and merchants everywhere are ramping up to use every trick in the book that could inspire your spending. 

To keep you from busting your budget, read on to learn about retailers’ most common (and effective) tactics that inspire spending. We’ll follow up with some tips to help build good holiday shopping habits—making the season merrier for your family and your wallet.

Sneaky Tricks Stores Use to Inspire Your Spending

Retailers have learned that making everything sparkle inspires spending. That’s because using razzle-dazzle metallics like silver and gold makes even the most mundane objects appear a little more luxurious. That’s why you’ll see shop windows everywhere packed with tinselly decor and glitzy products, such as party dresses with sequins or shimmery fabrics.

Another tactic used by stores is to limit the appearance of what’s in stock—a trick you’ll notice is particularly popular on days like Black Friday, where in-store or online deals may only run for several hours. Limiting the availability of items turns shopping into a competitive sport, as many consumers hate the idea that someone else may have gotten a better deal. It also inspires impulse purchases by making us feel like we’ll miss out on a great discount or item if we don’t buy something, stat.

Related: How to End Regrettable Spending: 9 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying Anything

And while turning gift shopping for loved ones into a fluorescent-lit version of the Hunger Games may not make you feel merry, stores hope that piping out traditional Christmas music will perk you right back up.

Why do they continue to choose Nat King Cole over Maroon 5? Stores play traditional holiday music because the tunes make shoppers feel nostalgic—a feeling rosy retrospection that retailers hope will inspire extra purchases.

Much like music, certain scents also evoke happy memories. That’s why savvy retailers will burn candles or use electronic aromatherapy diffusers to spread fragrances such as mulled wine, pine, cinnamon, fresh-baked cookies, and orange—all scents that have been proven to inspire a feeling of comfort and lead to extra spending. [1]

Finally, some retailers will use a “bait and switch” tactic—where they advertise an incredible product at a very low price to bring customers to the store. But, of course, they only have a limited supply of that product. 

Once it’s sold out—and since you waited in line for hours to purchase it—stores bank on the idea that you’ll settle for the next best thing: a less attractive product at a less attractive price. After all, because you put so much effort to get to the store, you’re not going to want to leave empty-handed.

How to Outsmart the Subtle Manipulation

Here’s a solid defensive strategy to help curb your worst buying habits (and resist your favorite retailers’ enticements):

1. Organize Your List

Before you ever open up a catalog, begin window browsing, or click on a retailer’s email, write down whom you’re buying for and what your budget is for each person on your list.

Once you’ve got your list together, consider using an app that’s designed to help you stay organized. The Christmas List App, available for $1.99 on iTunes and Google Play, allows you to track all your Christmas shopping in one place—including everyone on your list, your total budget, and each gift’s status (shipped, received and wrapped). Alternatively, Santa’s Bag is a free app that lets you set budgets, create shopping lists and track your progress as you go.

2. Work Some Gifts for Yourself Into Your Budget

When you’re shopping for others, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to see something you’d really like for yourself. Instead of indulging and then feeling guilty, which tends to lead to additional spending, go ahead and give yourself a little budget for self-shopping. 

3. Be Smart About Gift Cards

Gift cards can be a great idea if you know that they’ll be used. However, with more than $41 billion in gift cards that have gone unused between 2005 and 2011, finding one that won’t just take up space in someone’s wallet is more of a struggle than shoppers may think. [2]

So, who should you get gift cards for and how to choose the best one? Gift cards make great gifts for teens or recipients in their early 20s, both of which are far more likely to indulge in the time it takes to shop for themselves, as well as coworkers who you don’t know that well. 

When picking one out, try to choose a gift card that gives someone an experience, such as passes to a movie theater for a cinema buff, rather than cards that can only be used to purchase extra stuff.

4. Finally, Ask Yourself These Questions Before You Buy

Before purchasing a gift for someone, try to think through the following:

  • What am I hoping to get from giving this gift?
  • Is it a gift in return, a good feeling about myself, or a feeling of trying to "one-up" the recipient?

And, if you’re shopping a “door-buster deal,” ask yourself these questions to make sure you’re buying a gift for the right reasons and not an emotional escape:

  • Why am I here?
  • How do I feel?
  • What if I wait?
  • How will I pay for it?
  • And, if it’s for you—Do I really need this?

The Bottom Line on Staying Within Budget This Shopping Season

The Holidays make most people feel sentimental. But that wonderful feeling can wreak some serious havoc on your bank account.  Why? When emotion guides our money decisions, we set ourselves up to be disappointed or remorseful.

Instead, keep your holiday shopping patterns in check by staying clear of the millions of emails, messages on your phone, and ads in your social networks that are designed to push your buttons and inspire spending.

See Also: The Secret to Creating Memories, Reducing Stress, & Having a Great Christmas Season

And because even the strongest budget-conscious shoppers can get worn down after weeks of messages, now is a great time of year to protect yourself from temptation by unsubscribing from any retailer’s email newsletters.

Finally, try to remember that you’ll see plenty of short-term promotions. Instead of racing to get the best deal, think carefully about what you’d really like to give to someone and let that be your guide.

For Best Holiday Tips & Resources, Check Out Our Holiday Shopping & Travel Guide.


  1. The Smells That Make Shoppers Spend More
  2. $41 Billion in Unused Gift Cards Since '05

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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