Top Tricks Companies Use To Make You Think You’re Getting a Deal

stock_colors / Getty Images/iStockphoto
stock_colors / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nobody wants to pay full price when they go shopping if they can find a great deal, discount or sale. Companies know this and have configured a number of tricks to make you think you’re getting the best price possible when you really might just be succumbing to clever psychology or staging. Tasha Holland-Kornegay, PhD, a mental health therapist and founder of, a deals site for healthcare workers, said, “The key is to make consumers think they’re saving money often by giving them just enough evidence of these savings to justify the purchase.”

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Companies know that consumers aren’t likely to do the research to determine whether that discount or sale is actually a good deal. “With a bit of skepticism and vigilance, consumers can avoid deceptive pricing and feel a bit better about those great products they bring home,” she said.

But first, you have to know what tricks you’re up against.

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If a company can make you believe that there is a limited supply of something you want, you’re potentially more likely to buy it, and to believe you’re getting a good deal on it when you do purchase it, said Emily Cooper, founder of the luxury Italian menswear brand Oliver Wicks.

In fact, a relatively famous study in 1975 asked 200 participants to rate the value of cookies within identical cookie jars, one with 10 cookies and the other with only two. “Surprisingly the cookies in the empty container were deemed more valuable,” said Susan Melony, founder and editor-in-chief of “Today, airlines and other businesses frequently employ the scarcity concept–‘just a few seats remaining at this price!'”

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Loyalty Cards/Rewards Programs

You probably have one or more loyalty cards in your wallet right now, from Target to CVS and many in between, which either reward you with points for how often you shop or offer special members-only discounts. “This may be a good deal for you if you’re actually an avid fan of that store but know that this is also one of their tricks to keep you coming to their store even when you have other options,” said Robert Banks, founder of MrStocks. “You are subconsciously wired that you’ll be rewarded if you keep coming back to them…” However, what really happens is that most of the time you end up spending more than you intended.

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If you’re shopping online, you are most likely falling prey to a psychological concept known as “priming,” Melony said. Priming, according to Better Marketing is “the act of introducing a stimulus to influence how individuals respond to a subsequent stimulus. In marketing, it’s a way to form user expectations….” Melony explains how the backdrop of the web page you are looking at may be influencing your attention, and thus your purchases. “Researchers assessed how the backdrop of a webpage affects individuals wanting to buy a car,” she said. “Consumers spent more time looking at the cost information when the backdrop was green with pennies on it, while they started looking at the safety portion when the background was red with flames.”

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The Sale of the Century

Particularly at key times during the year, retailers will often announce a “special” sale such as a birthday sale, a Labor Day sale, or simply a random sale that sounds big, said Kristine Daub, founding editor of byCurated. “When you walk through the store, you’re inundated with sale stickers where price tags usually are. What the store doesn’t tell you is that most items are only marked down by a fraction of their usual price. So while you may be saving a dollar or two per item, your overall saving is nowhere near what you may have initially thought.”

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Out of Stock

Another common trick, Daub said, plays bait and switch: “You see an ad for a deal too good to be true. You almost don’t believe that it’s true, but the ad is from a trusted brand. So, off you rush to the store, ready to take home the deal of the lifetime.” Except, when you arrive, the item is out of stock. But the retailer banks on the fact that, since you’re there, you’ll probably buy a few things anyway.

The Decoy Effect

Another psychological trick that retailers play on you is known as “the decoy effect,” said Kristin Uptain, market manager at Redde Payments. In this case, “a consumer changes their mind between two options when presented with a third option known as the ‘decoy.” She gives the example of having three coffee options: a small for $2, a medium for $4.50 and a large for $5. “You can see that if you are considering a medium you can get a much larger coffee for only 50 cents more with the large. Consumers will naturally buy the more expensive option, which is exactly what the seller wants.” The middle price is typically the decoy.

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Another trick that you have probably seen and even taken advantage of is the “buy one get one” free approach (or BOGO). In A BOGO sale, Uptain said, the seller actually earns more profit than on a standard sale, but you believe that you have come away with a better deal.

While there are many tricks at play, if you like the deal you’re getting on an item, then it doesn’t really matter what the retailer did to get you to buy it.

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Last updated: Oct. 27, 2021

This article originally appeared on Top Tricks Companies Use To Make You Think You’re Getting a Deal