How shops use psychology to make you spend

Last updated: 30th August 2017

In the last few months, we’ve been looking at the psychology behind saving and spending. What makes someone a saver or a spender? What’s happening psychologically when we decide to make that impulse purchase we know we can’t afford?

Much of it comes down to willpower and good training. But retailers have plenty of techniques to make us more likely to splurge. Here are some of the ways that shops influence you to spend.


Shops and brands often use the emotional connections of colour to make you more likely to buy. Black is the colour of sophistication, often used to make cheaper products seem more upmarket and prestigious.

Blue is the colour used by brands to foster a sense of loyalty. It makes people feel secure and trusting. Blue is also associated with high quality.1

Purple makes us think of refinement and luxury.2

Research has also shown that people associate different colours with different flavours. A study published in Flavour, found that we associate cool colours with elegance and long-lasting flavour.

Sound and music

Many shops, especially ones that sell clothes, play loud music. And there’s a good reason for it: the sensory overload caused by the music lowers your willpower. That means, if you’re buying something that you want on an emotional level – such as an item of clothing – you’re more likely to crack and treat yourself.4

Music’s also used to create certain associations with a product. One study examined how much wine people bought when different kinds of music were played in a wine shop. Sales increased significantly when classical music was played rather than top 40 pop music.5

Psychological pricing

Psychological pricing isn’t just about ending a price in 99p rather than rounding it up. The specific impact of pricing decisions depends on the type of thing customers are buying.

For emotional and luxury purchases, people prefer round numbers. But for rational, sensible purchases, less round prices made people more likely to buy the item.6

The anchor decoy is another interesting phenomenon. It’s when companies produce a highly expensive item that isn’t supposed to sell. Instead, it’s supposed to make a different item seem more affordable by comparison.7

Lowering willpower

Willpower is a finite thing: the more we use it in a short space of time, the harder it becomes to keep making sensible decisions.

Willpower also takes mental energy, so going shopping after something mentally draining – such as a day at work – means you’re more likely to make those impulsive, emotional purchases.

Shops can use mentally draining techniques – like the music one mentioned above – to make you more likely to buy.

This was illustrated by a study that asked two groups of participants to choose between a fruit salad and chocolate cake. One group was also asked to memorise a seven-digit number. The group that had to memorise the number chose the salad 42 per cent of the time, compared to 63 per cent in the other group.8


We’re more likely to buy something after being able to physically touch it. This is because, the more interaction we have with a product, the more we develop a sense of connection and ownership – before we’ve even bought it.9

That’s why so many shops and businesses deliberately create spaces for customers to interact with and “get to know” their products: car retailers let you test drive vehicles, pet shops have spaces in which you can interact with animals, and bookshops have seating arrangements for you to sit with a book for a while.

So the next time you hit the shops, be aware of all these subtle techniques that can influence you to part with your money. Combine it with Dr. Frank's tips on saving and willpower, and you could be on your way to becoming a money-saving master.



1 "Colours in Marketing: A Study of Colour Assocations and Context (in) Dependence", Martin Amsteus, PhD, Sarah Al-Shaaban, Emmy Wallin, Sarah Sjoqvist, International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2015

2 "Relationship Between Colour and Emotion: a Study of College Students", Naz Kaya and Helen H. Epps, College Student Journal, 2004

4 "The Interaction Effect of Background Music and Ambient Scent on the Perception of Service Quality", Richard Michon and Jean-Charles Chebat, Journal of Business Research, 2004

5 "The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behaviour: Classics Versus Top-Forty Music in a Wine Store", Charles S. Areni and David Kim, Advances in Consumer Research, 1993

6 "This Number Just Feels Right: The Impact of Roundedness of Price Numbers on Product Evaluations", Monica Wadhwa and Kuangjie Zhang, Journal of Consumer Research, 2015

7 "Incidental Prices and Their Effect on Willingness to Pay", Joseph C. Nunes and Peter Boatwright, Journal of Marketing Research, 2004

8 "Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making", Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin, Journal of Consumer Research, 1999

9 "The Power of Touch: an Examination of the Effect of Duration and Physical Contact on the Valuation of Objects", James R. Wolf, Hal R. Arkes and Waleed A. Muhanna, Judgement and Decision Making, 2008