As supply chain disruptions continue to impact businesses around the globe, consumers could have a tough time holiday shopping this year — whether due to a lack of inventory, higher prices or both. And given the nearly two years of constant stress and exhaustion around Covid-19, shoppers will be more vulnerable than ever to the marketing tactics retailers use to trick their brains into frantic spending and hoarding.
Most of us don’t realize it, but our brains are inherently lazy. Due to both resource availability and functional properties, neurons (a.k.a. brain cells) get tired with use. To prevent its own fatigue, the brain takes shortcuts and tries to make quick, “intuitive” judgements rather than long, drawn-out considerations. These quick assessments of the world can be incredibly useful as we make thousands of decisions each day, but they can also often lead to errors in judgement.
Retailers and marketers know this. The essence of decision making usually lies within the limbic system, which regulates emotions, memories and habits. This means that nostalgia and traditions drive many of our holiday purchases, making it easier for retailers to trick your brain by pulling on your heartstrings.
To ensure you make rational decisions amongst the shortages this holiday season, there are a few things you can do to teach your brain to slow down and think through each purchase.
Be intentional and make a list
It may sound silly, but lists can keep emotion from ruling the shopping trip. By slowly thinking through each item you may need ahead of time, you’ll remove the burden of decisions and increase intentionality in your shopping. Scribbling a list quickly beforehand doesn’t count, as it opens the door for not trusting what you wrote down and makes it that much easier for you to stray from it and fall prey to retailers’ marketing tactics. By having a list that you know you’ve thought through, you can train your brain to trust that you will not make the additional just-in-case purchases that retailers want you to make.
Just as you might cue up a favorite podcast and wear certain shoes for yardwork, you can prepare yourself for shopping. Discomfort leads to urgency in decision making, which leads to purchases that fulfill immediate needs rather than solid strategic purchases. Once you get into a store, it’s often difficult to find a spot to sit down or a restroom, encouraging you to rush your shopping and make convenience purchases. Even a few minutes to breathe deeply, have a snack, drink water, visit the restroom and sit for a moment to review your list prior to shopping can reshape the physical stress signals your body is sending and slow down your processing to make better choices. This short time investment can yield big gains in time and money over a shopping trip (in person or online).
Manage your biases
To influence your purchases, retailers take advantage of cognitive biases in advertisements, floor layout, display techniques and more. They often display expensive items near more moderately priced items, knowing that most customers will purchase in a middle range. Those pricier items skew the customer’s perception of value, and they end up buying a slightly more expensive item than intended, buying more items, or both. To further take advantage of this effect, retailers display the original price of an item that’s on sale.
Another cognitive bias that leads us to shopping frenzies, overspending and questionable decisions is the scarcity effect, which describes the change in our perception of an item when it is more rare. Retailers exploit this by offering a deal or product for a “limited time only” or “while supplies last.” Our brains perceive these advertising cues as a threat, and evoke competitiveness and our fear of missing out.
Scarcity is aversive, and it triggers the desire for abundance. As we saw at the beginning of the pandemic with toilet paper and cleaning supplies, when items are more difficult to find, customers purchase higher quantities when they do find those items, hoarding the products for themselves against the possibility of ongoing future scarcity. What’s more, this need for abundance leads customers to become less selective, and they will purchase other items to fill in the gaps.
Every Black Friday, shoppers get carried away. Current global supply chain shortages mean we can expect record-breaking battles throughout the holiday season over the last jar of pumpkin pie spice and the last Baby Yoda toy on the shelf. Retailers are counting on this. Instead of replacing items that will be out of stock for an extended time due to supply chain issues, they’ll leave the tags up with a gaping hole on the shelf, while making sure to add alternatives and options nearby. They’ll want you to see the gap and feel the panic of missing items. This is an obvious signal that what they purported is true: Everything in the store is available only “while supplies last.”
Many people saved money during the pandemic and have a surplus of savings. Even more so than in years past, retailers will capitalize on this to get them to spend. And in a time of supply uncertainty and inflation, the fear centers of our brain are primed to protect us from pain and loss, setting an ideal landscape for marketing ploys.
Check your emotions
Holiday marketing campaigns are designed to tap into deeply rooted emotions. Nostalgia is a special form of long-term memory that activates reward pathways in the brain along with memory regions. Interestingly, it also activates an area called the striatum, which plays a role in motivation, action planning and decision making. When triggered by watching a commercial or hearing a song, this “rosy glow” on childhood memories motivates you to do something, such as buy a little something extra for your sibling.
After a disrupted holiday season last year, our brains are seeking additional pleasure to add to that memory network. We’re going to be particularly susceptible to messaging that reminds us of holidays past, and we’re going to very likely want to buy extra gifts and food in an attempt to recreate, and perhaps surpass, the pleasure we remember. Holiday advertising typically features traditional family gatherings and interactions to remind you of the past. This year that will be layered with details like music, fashion and games from earlier eras to capitalize on key markets.
We’ll also potentially be even more easily triggered by environmental cues, especially smells that are connected to positive holiday experiences. Retailers are likely to utilize these to bump sales, too.
If you’re shopping and feeling nostalgic for someone, shoot them a text and let them know you’re thinking of them rather than overbuying. If an item reminds you of someone or an old story, snap a picture or grab a screenshot, and spend some time reminiscing later, no purchase necessary.
Being aware of holiday marketing tricks usually helps you defend against them. This is the value of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. When we engage our brain in analyzing itself, we start to observe and shape our own behaviors accordingly. That’s how we can utilize these strategies to make rational shopping decisions.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the author’s title at the Science Museum of Virginia. She is a life scientist there.
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