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The Psychology Behind Sale Shopping

Jan. 9, 2012
4 mins
A young woman buying something on her phone with her credit card

With Christmas behind us, and a new year ahead of us, now we can focus on our savings, right? Wrong. Fact: there are more sales AFTER Christmas than there were before, and retailers are making it harder and harder to just stay home and enjoy what you’ve already got.

Retailers are smart. They play games with you to get you to spend more money – even after you’ve exhausted most of your resources over the holidays. For example, January  sales quite often offer “Buy one, get one free” or “Buy one, get one half off”, instead of offering a flat 25% or 50% discount. This way you buy more than you need.

Often retailers offer sales if you buy more than one item. What happens when you see a sale offering 4/$20 and you’ve only got 3 items in your hand? You go find that fourth item, right? Most of us do. But what the retailers aren’t telling you is that most times you don’t have to buy all four items to get the deal, and if you do, you don’t save that much money by buying four anyway. The ad is there to get you to buy more than you need – plain and simple.

The reason that sales work is because they get you on a deep, psychological level. It’s not just about the deal on offer. Here are 5 ways retailers play on your emotions and get you to spend more than you want to:


There’s no doubt about it, sales create a sense of competition among shoppers. Retailers will sometimes offer sales – online or in-store – that last for only a few hours. These types of sales instil a sense of panic in consumers. They must get the coveted item before their competition does.

I witnessed this myself very recently in a three-hour sale at Michael’s, the craft store. People were rushing around the store, putting items in their shopping carts just to make sure they had them. The store was in chaos, and at any moment I expected someone to start wrestling over a 50% off scented candle or holiday wreath. The point is, both consumer and retailers thrive on this. Nobody likes to miss out on a sale.

The feeling of saving, not spending

People love sales because it makes them feel like they’re saving, not spending. If you ask someone who has returned from a sale how much they spent, they might not be able to tell you. But I’ll bet you a dollar that they know how much they saved. The problem is that you’re buying items you wouldn’t normally buy.

Take, for instance, coupon clipping. It’s become all the rage in these tough economic times, but coupons are usually offered on items and brands you otherwise wouldn’t buy. Coupon shopping can lead to stocking up on items you’d normally avoid just because you feel like you’re saving.


One of the first things we feel when we see a sale is fear – or the fear of missing out. What if supplies are limited? What if I don’t respond quickly enough? These thoughts all lead to the irrational fear of missing out, the ‘it’s now-or-never’ mentality and impulse buying.

Emotional investment

Here’s a great example. I received an email from Ricki’s advertising a 70% off sale (online only) on all of their winter coats. I got real excited – I desperately need a new winter coat – and so I started making my way through their online products. I found two beautiful coats, had a hard time choosing between them, and decided to buy them both. I clicked the “add to cart” button only to find that the item I wanted was out of stock. I tried the other coat. It too was out of stock. Then I randomly started clicking all of the other coats. They were ALL out of stock.

At this point, I had invested a good 30 minutes hemming and hawing over sizes and colours. I had convinced myself that I was indeed responsible enough to care for a white coat, and yes, I could do sexy – all for nothing. My automatic impulse was to just buy something, especially since I had invested so much time and emotion into getting those coats. It had me wondering though, was this just a tactic to get my money?

Perceived value

Sale items have the uncanny ability to appear more valuable than they really are. When something goes on sale, we instinctively think that we’re getting a deal. Is that $700 flat screen TV, marked down to $400 really worth $700 in the first place?

Don't be fooled by sales

For the most part, most of us realize what’s going on when we encounter a sale – it’s whether or not we choose to exercise better judgment. I stand by my own method: If I see something I like and it’s priced right, I walk away and think about it. If I’ve forgotten about the item entirely in an hour’s time then I don’t go back. Obviously, it wasn’t important and I didn’t need it.

If I find myself going back to the item over and over in my head, then I know it’s not a mistake to buy it – especially if I’ve compared prices, know it’s a great deal and am definitely saving money on an item I needed. We each operate differently. Find a way that works for you.


The RATESDOTCA editorial team are experienced writers focused on sharing stories and bringing you the latest news in insurance and personal finance. Our goal is to provide Canadians with the information and resources they need to make better insurance and financial decisions.

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