Are you reading this at home after a day’s shopping in the New Year Sales? Or maybe you’re still at the sales and have a reprieve from the shop floor(s) by sipping a latte in a cozy coffee shop?

Wherever you are, if you’ve been sales shopping, you have been spending. That’s just what retailers love you to do, post-Christmas. You are happy too, no doubt, since you’ve managed to save yourself hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars with your smart cut-price purchases. 

Behavioral psychologists have spent decades studying our sales shopping behavior. Still today they argue about what it is that makes us go a little mad when the sales come around – especially the year-end sales. Why they ponder, do we buy items we wouldn’t dream of spending cash on the rest of the year? Well, most behaviorists agree it’s all about appealing to individual senses all of us have; the emotions that make us opt for the decision our heart – rather than our head – makes. To find out about those emotions, what they make us do, and their specific triggers, read on.

Emotional cues that make us spend more at the sales

Competition. Competition is a biggie –,, especially around New Year Sales time. No-one wants to feel as if they are missing out on that big bargain around the corner. The competitive instinct is why shops make us queue outside the shop before they eventually open the doors – and by which time, we’re positively rampant to get in there. A buzz builds as we wait; excitement turns to desperation, especially when we know there are only a select few of the coveted items everyone seems to plan to buy.

It’s the same online – even though its only one consumer sitting in their own home. Retailers achieve a similar sales buzz by restricting the sale to a particular period and tell us ‘count down-style’ how many items are left of a specific product whenever they sell one. This leads us to our next state of mind.

Fear of Missing out (FOMO). This is a pretty well-recognized term these days. It’s usually applied to the internet and, indeed, the concept goes hand in hand with internet shopping. It is this ‘fear of failing’ that causes consumers to ‘panic-buy’ – not because they particularly want or need the item on sale, but because they might and don’t want to risk losing out to another fellow shopper.

Saving money. Bagging a bargain feels excellent. It gives consumers the sense that they have managed to get ‘one over’ on the retailers. Behavioral psychologists point out that typically a consumer will return from a sale and boast about how much money they have managed to save at the sales. Ask them how much they had to spend in the first place to make those savings, and they probably won’t be able to tell you – they will have to go off and work it out. 

Emotional investment. Sometimes consumers can spend so much time and effort looking for a bargain in a shop or searching online at home that they will inevitably buy ‘something.’ It may not be an item they necessarily went on to look for, need, or even want. It is instead a purchased used to justify the time they have ‘wasted’ while spending all that time searching. That way, they can tell themselves the lost hours were worthwhile, and there is no need to feel guilty about those other chores they neglected while spending all that time online or physically walking around the store.

Incidentally, here is some killer research that shopaholics and other constant consumers may find interesting. Those who shop a lot are tempted to buy even more when asked to think about their mortality.

Spendthrifts, on the other hand, typically don’t change their shopping behavior one bit. The research, from Professor Michel Laroche at the John Molson School of Business in Canada, involved placing 507 university students in control groups. The results, Professor Laroche, announced were down to individual’ self-esteem.’ By this, he means that people whose habit it is to shop will buy even more goods when asked to think about impending death. This statistic is because shopping is how they cope with being in the world. In other words, a perfectly normal reaction to any news – good or bad – is to go out and shop. It makes them feel better.

Environmental cues that change consumer behavior

Proximity. Researchers have noticed that being close to a particular item can make shoppers vulnerable to buying it – even if it’s on a subconscious level. The classic is, of course, children who have a sweet tooth, reaching out for candy beside the till. The majority of us are also familiar with the smell of baking bread whenever we pass that particular section of the grocery store. However, a subtler form of this was tried out on a bunch of wine-buying adults in a Sainsbury’s store two decades ago – and shows it doesn’t just work on what we see or smell, but also what we are hearing. 

To prove it, researchers looked at whether retailers could tempt shoppers to buy French or German wine depending on the nationality of the music playing at the time. The results were surprising: more French wine was sold when retailers played french music through the grocery store’s loudspeakers, and, similarly, more German wine was purchased when Bavarian or ‘oompah’ music was playing.

Buy Now/Pay Later. The ‘have it now and suffer later’ kind of sales deal can prove particularly tempting because it involves delaying payment until a date too far away even to contemplate right there and then. Better still, if the amount to be repaid is monthly and over a long period, then even those repayment figures don’t seem like very much. Indeed, it is less of a jolt to the finances – and the senses – deferring payment than having to fork out the full amount upfront right there and then. Not surprisingly, this is also the reason why credit card companies do so well. 

Mental exhaustion. Having to make too many decisions in one day can force consumers to make ‘ill-advised’ decisions. A day spent at the sales is just such a situation. Walking around for hours and carrying an increasing amount of purchases in bags can lead to physical, but also mental, exhaustion. It is when consumers are at their lowest ebb that they are most vulnerable to temptation. That is why shoppers are more likely to make their least sensible sales decision towards the end of the day. When in two minds about an item and aware that the shop is closing in 30 minutes, the shopper is more likely to purchase the sale item than walk away from it.

Social recognition. Very few people live in isolation. Most individuals are like fish in a goldfish bowl, always going around and interacting with neighbors, work colleagues, friends, etc. It is called being part of a community and elicits a feeling of ‘belonging’ that people like feeling. It is for this reason that when consumers see signs such as ‘nine out ten cat owners buy Purina,’ we do too (but only if we have a cat, one will hope…). This is because an individual believes that if so many others in his or her ‘trusted’ community are buying this product, then it must be good.

Anchoring. The term ‘anchoring’ refers to when an initial price for an item or service is set. That is because it gives the consumer a fixed place (or figure) from which to base other costs. Anything less than this figure, people consider as a bargain. On the other hand, a similar item that is costlier can appear to be too expensive. This scenario is like shoppers going for the ‘middle-priced’ option when choosing games equipment, training shoes, etc. i.e., something they’re not familiar with buying on a day to day basis.

Other influences on January sales shopping mentality

SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) nearly always hits its peak during the darkest winter months of the year i.e., December and January. A form of depression caused by lack of sunlight, it differs in its severity between individuals. However, there is no doubt that it regularly results in comfort buying. This is because, for many people, shopping is a means of cheering themselves up. The January sales, therefore, can prove to be just one temptation too many.

Adrenalin rush. The ‘high’ of getting a bargain at the sales can be exhilarating – to the extent that bagging the deal (ie, saving a certain amount of money) can become even more important than having the item itself. The one thing we know about ‘highs’ is that they are addictive. The result is that one bargain high can drive the consumer to seek that feeling again, and so the sales purchasing continues.

Our upbringing. How we feel about spending money depends on our childhood, according to many psychologists. Someone who is brought up in a family struggling to pay the billsis probably not interested in sales shopping (they ‘lived it’ during their childhood). For other consumers brought up in homes where money isn’t an issue, may see sales shopping – and the hunt for the perfect bargain – as good fun (and which is why so many retailers offer ‘discount bins’ where shoppers have to search for their deal by rummaging around).

How to see through consumer ‘sales speak.’

If something is for ‘a limited time only,’ the retailer is trying to push you into buying. Try and resist – unless you genuinely want or need the item in question. Chances are it will re-appear on sale again soon, or the store will extend the offer.

Buy one, get one half-price is pretty standard these days, even buy one get one free. It may initially sound tempting; however, all it is forcing you to do is buy more of the same – whether you need it right now or not. It is also preventing you from trying out a competitor’s product that you may like better since you have already stocked up with the original brand’s items.

Just because an item is on sale doesn’t mean it’s valuable. A TV reduced by $200 may not have been worth its original price of $500 anyhow. Could it still be classed as a sale then? Not really.

Tips to avoid falling prey to sales non-bargains

One way to assure you don’t get caught up in the sales buying frenzy this January is to test yourself. If you something appearing to be a great bargain on an item, you convince yourself you will use, then don’t snap it up right away. Instead, go for a walk and distract yourself for an hour or more. If you are still thinking about that item 60 minutes later, then go back and get it. If not, forget it – it’s not such a big deal for you, after all.

Another way to assure you don’t spend too much at the January sales is to limit the time you spend there. Decide beforehand; you are only going to be there for two or three hours max. Psychologists say that the longer an individual spends at the sales, the more he or she ends up spending. Ironically this is a trap that seasoned bargain hunters fall into a lot. That’s because they spend so long hunting great deals, they end up buying more than other shoppers. The result is a ‘presents drawer’ stuffed full of potential gifts for no-one in particular.

Of course, that person is not going to be you, though. There should be no ‘bargain brain’ succumbing on your part now that you have read considered all of the tricks and tips in this article.

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