Deceptive deals: how price affects why we buy

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Retailers of every type employ a range of tactics that play upon aspects of the human mind so that they can sell you more stuff, and these psychological strategies are used by practically every savvy retail business.

For regular folks looking to save money, understanding them can improve our understanding of why we buy, and help us change our spending habits.

At the supermarket


Buy one, get one free offers are the most well-known of these – if you think you're getting a better deal, you're more likely to conduct a purchase, increasing a supermarket's sales volumes – and profits – in the process. But it's not always the case – raising the price of a single item and offering another for free is a regular tactic of getting customers to spend more than usual. Be wary! Find out more about how you can cut down your food bills in particular, here.

Price anchoring

Using "price anchoring" is another popular means of increasing sales. If a supermarket shelf – or any grouping of products, for that matter – contains a mix of prices, with one high-priced product displayed at eye level, for instance, the cost of the other items will then seem smaller and the customer will be more likely to purchase them.

This is because we use the first piece of information received to inform our later judgements, and the difference between the most expensive product and the rest will make the cheaper items seem like better deals. Is it actually cheap, or does it just seem cheap in comparison? Make sure to take a closer look.

Rule of 100

The "rule of 100" is also often used by supermarkets, especially those that sell a wide variety of products – lawnmowers, televisions and appliances, for example. Under the rule, if a product costs less than £100, discounts will be listed as a percentage, while prices higher will be shown in absolute terms – say, "£50 off".

This is because in each case, the chosen way of displaying a discount will appear largest, playing towards our want for a bigger, better deal. A £20 item can have either a 10% or £2 off discount, while a £120 item could have either 10% or £12 off as the stated reduction – it's obvious which appears better in each case!

Big purchases

If you're buying an expensive product – perhaps one that has a symbolic, important or sentimental meaning such as a car, wedding ring or home – retailers are likely to play to our instinctive preference towards what is known as round pricing.

For things that elicit emotions – wedding dresses and other sentimental items, for instance – then the price won't usually include pence. This is because when buying an emotionally-charged product, we want it to be set in stone and perfect – if there are no decimals, our minds perceive it as a more solid price.

If the goods are being bought for rational reasons, such as cars or expensive appliances, then adding the pence digits makes us think that the price has been worked out to the letter. What's more, because we're using a lot of mental energy in choosing between the products available, if our brains need to work harder when looking at the price then the two mental tasks add up, meaning we're more likely to buy.

Feature heavy

Items that are advertised as having more features than competing products also play upon the way our minds work. The more features listed, the better we think the product is, and even when the price is higher than similar items, our fear of buyer's remorse – when we later regret purchasing something cheap and feature-lacking because it doesn't fulfil our desires – can make us cough up the cash. Big technology purchases can be especially impacted by this price-value bias.


With so many fashion brands out there it can be hard for retailers to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Because of this, they employ all sorts of psychological methods to improve their chances of receiving a sale.


Take models, for example. Aside from the really upmarket fashion retailers, many will use models that look like normal people, each posing in a relaxed and casual way. The "characters" in the ads are made to appeal to different types of people, depending on the brand, making said groups happier to spend their cash – they identify with the clothes on offer as they're seemingly being modelled by people just like them.

Hurry, offers ends soon

Ever wondered why retailers run short-term sales? Surely they're losing money by cutting costs so drastically? Once again, the psychological sales method strikes, as retailers know exactly why we buy! By making the savings short term – urgent – and describing them as open to only a select few people – exclusive – they hope that customers will be able to better rationalise the purchase, knowing that they're both special, and that the deal is only available for a limited time. Stop and think – do you really need something, or are you just panic buying? There's a good chance it'll stick around after the sale is over – or at least show up in the Asos Marketplace!

The nostalgia effect

Fashion purchases can also be affected by the nostalgia effect. This is when products are marketed in such a way that they play upon our happy, nostalgic memories – rose-tinted recollections that have been scientifically shown to make us feel more uplifted, less lonely, more sociable and, as a result, more likely to buy. This can play into the hands of trend-setters, but also to social media businesses and charities as well. Don't be fooled into buying something for a higher price just because it tugs at the heartstrings.

Looking for a great deal

Selling products isn't a black and white process, and retailers of every shade have developed the above means to part you from your hard-earned cash. Simply being aware of the methods used can help you stop and think about what you're paying for. Even if it looks like a great deal, is it always worth it? That's certainly a question worth asking yourself when you're trying to understand why we buy.

Find out more money saving tips on our blog.

Remember, do not buy what you can’t afford, and think carefully before taking out a loan for any non-essential purchases.

All information was correct at the time of writing.

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