How malls trick you into overspending

There’s a method to the overheated aisles and loud music. How retailers overstimulate to get your money

Woman paying for purchase with credit card

Photo: Masterfile

Is there any place more miserable than a shopping mall in the thick of holiday season? Probably not.

It seems all of the unpleasantness loud music, overcrowding, sweltering heat, smell of too much perfume  may represent a strategy on the part of retailers, or so suggests a recent article in The New York Times.

In the article, writer Oliver Burkeman puts forth the interesting idea that retailers are doing their best to make the shopping experience unpleasant.

Why would a retailer want to do something so underhanded and sneaky to its loyal customer base? To make them spend more, of course. Writes Burkeman: “evidence suggests that the less comfortable you are during the seasonal shopping spree, the more money you’ll spend.”

Think Burkeman is being a tad extreme? Well, consider this study (courtesy of Burkeman) on how music, such as the loud Christmas carols that play relentlessly in every store you go into, affect the human brain.

“Music played at high volumes, for example, may be irritating, but researchers from Penn State and the National University of Singapore concluded it was one of several factors that leads to overstimulation and ‘a momentary loss of self-control, thus enhancing the likelihood of impulse purchase.’”

Same goes for the cloying aromas that haunt every retail store you go into — leading this weary shopper to consider applying a clothespin to the end of her nose to get through the last few weeks of remaining shopping.

Burkeman cites one expert who argues that retailers select aromas to purposely manipulate consumers’ emotion — forcing them to connect, say the scent of gingerbread and all of its attendant familial associations with the purchase of a $40 candle.

The point of the “sensory overload” as Burkeman describes the modern shopping experience is to get people in such a bad mood that they want to get in and get out.

And that’s where the stores get you.

“How convenient, then, that there appears to be one obvious route through the chaos: buy that Nintendo Wii or that iPad or that designer perfume — whatever you’ve been wavering over — and be done with it,” writes Burkeman.

How to avoid the misery and the manipulation? Burkeman offers a few alternatives: shop online, cultivate a Zen-like state of mind in which not even Justin Bieber’s ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ can send you into paroxysms of rage, or start your shopping earlier.

Failing that, you can always play by the retailers’ rules. Spritz your Visa with the most cloying perfume you can find and bellow your favourite holiday tune as you browse the aisles.

Do you shop in malls or online during the holidays?

2 comments on “How malls trick you into overspending

  1. I still do the majority of my shopping in stores, but I usually get most of it done in November, or on weeknights in December, so it is typically less busy in the malls. However, if this is the retailers’ mindset, it should come as no surprise that more people choose to buy online.


  2. This might work well for some but certainly not for me! I enjoy shopping any other time of the year but not in the malls at Christmas. In order to minimize time in the store I plan in advance and shop online. I cannot shop in crowded stores and after a while it drives me crazy. I go in with a list and stick to it. I also buy gifts for only a few people and sometimes this may not even require me to shop in a mall- I may go to smaller stores or specialty shops.


Leave a comment

Sign in to comment.