Opening the Shopping Floodgates

Ever notice how sometimes when you go shopping for one thing, you end up bringing home four or five other things? How many times have your heard, “I only came in for…” at the check-out? It’s one of the reasons I shop with a list and only add to my list, not to my shopping.

From Stanford comes a new set of studies that talk about how shopping can lead to more shopping. It seems that buying that fateful first item may open the shopping floodgates.

People were given the opportunity to buy discounted items from the researchers as compensation for their participation in the study. Some people were offered a light bulb, others received something more relevant to their needs like an educational CD. This was to vary how likely people were to buy the first item. It came as no surprise that people who received a light bulb were less likely to buy it compared to those who received the CD. Then folks had the chance to buy a second item: a keychain.

Turns out, the people who bought the CD – something they wanted — were more likely to buy the keychain even though the second item was completely unrelated to the first. Turns out shopping is a two-stage process:

  1. People deliberate about a purchase, weighing cost and benefits, the degree to which they need the item, and so on.
  2. Once the deliberation is over and the buying begins, a subtle psychological mechanism comes into play and a roller coaster of shopping can begin.

That first buy creates what the researchers call “shopping momentum.”

Most people don’t have a clue that this is happening to them. Outside of stores, people think rationally. Inside stores, a whole different dynamic comes into play and people may be triggered to shop MORE by the sheer act of shopping. That’s why smart stores put momentum starters at the front of the store; you know, those small items it’s easy to pick up, which don’t require a lot of deliberation. Those little buys get you on a shopping roll. It’s also why smart retailers use “loss leaders” or products they sell at a deep discount to get you into the store. They know that when you pick up those 24 rolls of toilet paper for a buck fifty, you’re going to have opened your shopping floodgates and buy all the other stuff at full price.

So are there ways to slow down your shopping momentum? Indeed there may be. It seems that when you must open two separate wallets, envelopes or other containers for your money, you’re more likely to think twice before jumping on the shopping bandwagon. That’d make a good case for not filling your basket and checking out all at once, but buying smaller loads of stuff at a time. It also could help your case if you put the cash you intend to spend into an envelope (and write your list on the front) before heading off to the store. You’re less likely to dip back into your wallet for impulse purchases.

25 Responses to “Opening the Shopping Floodgates”

  1. I know what you mean. I usually stick with my list at the grocery store. But sometimes I will see things that I have “forgotten” to put on the list…

  2. I think this is completely valid. My best remedy for this is to not go shopping, except for when I need something like groceries, which is a completely unavoidable purchase! The shopping list is really the best way I’ve found to help stop those additional purchases… but it’s not always fool proof!

    Another way I keep spending under control is to limit how much I can spend. If I’ve only got $50 to spend on this shopping trip I can’t pick up much extra, or I have to put something away before I can buy the other item that wasn’t on the list.

  3. i went grocery shopping 2 weeks ago. got just what was on the list…

    went last saturday with 14 year old daughter.. spent 60 dollars more than my list on junkfood and soda….

    lesson learned….

  4. This is definitely true! I find it helps a lot to not only have a list, but also to use cash. If you only brought enough money for what you need it makes it very dificult to buy those extra items!

  5. I sometimes fall victim to the “well we need this this and this, might as well get these things too”. It’s harder to avoid when we’ve been sticking to the budget so tightly and then an opportunity arrises and there’s a little money left over.

  6. So true – and then I stick to my 3 questions which help to funnel my buying decisions:

    1. Do I want it?
    2. Do I need it?
    3. Will I use it?

    Oh yes – and the 4th question – can I afford it?

    And then I add up the costs and say something like, ‘If I spend that $25 on this sale item – that’s $25 I don’t have to put down against the debt (or some other major purchase that is required)’.

  7. I use the “no shopping days” method. I try NOT to shop as many days as possible. Some weeks I can stay out of the stores with the exception of Saturday, which is my grocery shopping day. I do find that once I’m shopping, I tend to pick up more stuff. Surprisingly, when I DON’T have the kids, I tend to spend more. Usually when I have the kids, I’m sticking to my list and run through the stores as quickly as possible, before one of them have a melt down.

    I do shop the “Loss leader”, but I do it on a timer. If I only need to pick up 1 or 2 things from the store, my husband will wait in the car with the kids. I have to quickly get those things and get out because I don’t want my husband and kids to have to wait too long in the car. This works for us, especially for stores that are on our way to something else.

    The other way is to send my husband to only pick up those few items with a list. He is so oblivious to prices at the grocery store that he wouldn’t know what would be a good sale price to stock up, so he
    just goes in and gets out.

  8. avatar Marrianne Says:
    March 16, 2011 at 9:15 am

    I have learned to shop on the computer then I really only order the item I need and if you get it on ebay it is even cheaper. also I live in a small town so city shopping take an hours worth of gas then of course you have to go out for lunch. and while I am there…… well you know what happens next. It is just better to get it delivered to my post office. LOL

  9. This is why gave up my Costco membership- whoever designed the layout to the store was a genius- I prefer Superstore- I can avoid the household goods and just stick to the groceries- I don’t automatically see all the great deals on clothing etc… like I did at Costco- much less temptation- I’m actually saving $20 + a week .

  10. I allowed this to happen to me yesterday at Homesense. I picked up one item and was prepared to leave but it seemed a waste of time standing in line to pay for one little thing so I wandered around and ended up with three items instead.
    It can occur in the grocery store too. I need only one item but since I have to stand in the express line, behind so many people who are over the limit, I make my wait more worthwhile by adding a few more things.

  11. I find that using a calculator while grocery shopping helps me. I know what my weekly food budget is and if, according to my calculator, I still have room only THEN will I stock up on sale items. It becomes a game of ” how far can I go before I hit my limit”? It tickles me but I do get some stares as I walk the aisles with a calculator.

  12. This is so true… I always just called it the ZONE… like a freak’n maniac Zone. Once I start at the mall, 10 stores later and huge gouges in my arms from shopping bags, I realize I am doomed.

    I even tried a budget at the mall last time, but my daughter and I each went over. The mall is evil. I become Paris Hilton with gobs of money and everything is HOT! 😉

    At the grocery store it is easier for me to stick to a list. At the mall, floodgates be damned… NOT.

    Tonight I am off to the market and yes, I have looked at the loss leaders, but usually am really good about sticking to them!

  13. I’m usually fairly on-target with the food budget, but if something’s on sale, and it’s something we always consume, I’m gonna pick up one or 2 extra (depending on what the item is). Clothes shopping is alway by the list, and I never buy more than I need (probably because I hate shopping so much).

  14. Huh. So this is how I ended up with all those clothes for the kids and I when I only went to pick up some props for an ‘achievement and career’ presentation for kids. Good to know … lol

  15. One of the reason we do bulk runs for groceries is that I then have to go to the grocery store less often. Even though some of the items we buy at Costco can be found for the same price elsewhere (many are cheaper, but not all), getting a bunch of them at once means I’m in stores less and have less opportunities to make impulse purchases.

  16. avatar virginia Says:
    March 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    to M

    Don’t feel freaky shopping with a calculator – I always do. I have a strict budget and if I go over the grocery budget I have to take that money from somewhere else. I also have a PC mastercard that I use for groceries only – I am very good, as soon as I get my butt in the door I am on my computer and paying the bill on line. Every couple of months I have enough accumulated points to get $20.00 off my bill – They have not received one single cent of interest from me.

  17. Oh yeah, store trickery…works well. But I find now that I stick to a cash budget and have a list for all purchases, it happens much less frequently. I also noticed that shopping alone, I can stick to my list relatively easily. But shopping with someone else – for either groceries or other items – it’s so easy to add more to the cart.

  18. avatar Flynnycat Says:
    March 16, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I have organic produce delivered to my door every other week. It’s healthy, there’s a good variety, you can go online to substitute something if you don’t want a particular item, and they deliver it right to your door! I can’t really overspend that way. Also, because the produce is fresh and beautiful, I am inspired to do a lot of cooking at home. Saves me money there too.
    I love The Organic Box. What a great business idea!

  19. We grow our own organic food, no delivery for us 🙂 Sort of. We use ‘square foot’ gardening to grow a small plot in our backyard. More to keep the kids interested, but we do get quite a bit of food out of it.

    And we get most of our meat from local farmers,direct. We have to have a deep freeze to keep it (half a cow doesn’t fit in the top shelf of the fridge). Not only is the meat better quality, but it’s as cheap or cheaper than store bought. And tastes way the heck better.

    Which reminds me, I better go empty the sap buckets. Because we also tap a maple tree in our backyard for the sap each year. Get a liter or two of syrup for way too much work. Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t taste any better than store bought :). But the kids like doing it.

  20. I go into the grocery store with only a specific amount of cash in my pocket, then if I go over, I have to put something back. I also leave my BF sitting in the car waiting for me so I don’t spend too much time inside and get sucked in. The mall, I have written that off – too many temptations, I don’t go at all any more.

  21. I always called this breaking the seal. It’s like opening up the seal on a pringles can, you open it and before you know it your tongue hurts from the salt but half the can is gone.

  22. Really a very nice blog.The contain is blog very good.

  23. Like Marrianne, my home is an hours drive from the BIG stores. If we have made the effort and committed the time and fuel to travel to the city, and something shows up that wasn’t on the list but should have been or that will be on the list AND it is at the right price, we are inclined to add it to the acquisitions of the day. But with six months of practice now, we are getting better at compiling a thorough list.

    To combat the eats on the road issue we make a thermos or two of coffee. Have protein snacks in vehicle (beef jerky, sesame snaps). Have hot dog lunch at Costco. ($4.18) If we are still there over supper, it is a fast food choice, unless it is a special occasion and we have already put a fancy dinner on the list. It’s funny home many special occasions my man can make up. 😉

    This blog brought back memories of the euphoric shopping bliss of past sprees. Kinda miss that. But I have noticed a new bliss, when the list is completed and we are on our way home before dark. Ahhhh….

  24. I find, also, that once you make the decision to break a 20 or to use your debit card, it’s then easier to justify. For instance, I wouldn’t use my debit card for a pack of gum but if I already had a couple items to buy, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it.

  25. avatar Tennis Fan Says:
    March 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I know every time I shop at target there will be at least one unplanned purchase. The solution is to wait and go only when necessary and take a list. This usually means the trip is more expensive (due to quantity) but that also encourages me not to put extra items in a cart. When I am only going in for 1 or 2 items I don’t get a cart or basket, my hands will due. When shopping I never take a cart when a hand basket is adequate. If you have to carry it around the entire store you will think twice about adding more weight.


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