Do sales make you crazy? Do you ever feel like you lose control and experience buyer’s remorse after stopping by the clearance rack? If so, you’re not alone. There’s a reason why we’re drawn to penny auctions and discount retailers like NoMoreRack, BargainRoom and JustFab. The human brain is wired for bargains. Psychologically and chemically, a good deal is hard to resist.

Marketers and salespeople frequently exploit our bargain-hunting traits, especially during the holiday shopping season, but they’re not the only ones. The same qualities that lead us to the sales aisle also make us vulnerable to scams and fraud. That’s why it’s so important to understand the way our brains work when we’re at the mall.

According to one estimate by the C&E Vision Group, special deals and bargain prices account for 88% of all self-reported impulse buys. Let’s take an in-depth look and review some of the psychological and chemical factors that influence our spending habits.


Psychology Explains Why Sales Suck Us In

In a recent article in Psychology Today, Golden Gate University professor of psychology and marketing Kit Yarrow describes five qualities that can whip even the thriftiest buyer into a sales-shopping frenzy.


1. Fear of Missing Out: “Quantities Are Limited, Get It Before It’s Gone!”

We hate the idea of missing out on an opportunity to save money or get the last item in the inventory. Often, a product we would normally overlook becomes hyper-appealing when it’s on sale. Online retailers take special advantage of this — from Amazon to Zbiddy, retail websites love to display live countdown timers and show the product inventory ticking down to zero. That encourages us to try to snatch these items before they’re gone.

What does Yarrow recommend to combat this fear and control your spending?

The solution is to make a list of coveted items and only buy what you’re sure wanted before it went on sale.

2. Competition: “I Can’t Let Someone Else Buy the Last One!”

Just as advertisements make us hate the idea of letting a perceived deal escape, stores also make us aware that we’re not the only shoppers on the hunt for a bargain. This sense of competition among customers leads to something Yarrow calls “sport shopping.” We become focused on “winning” (nabbing the deal before anyone else) more than actually saving money.

Yarrow’s suggestion:

Time is the solution. Take time and few calm moments to level off the excitement of the moment. It’ll reduce the chance of making ultimately an unsatisfying purchase.

We often feel pressured to move on a hot deal just to prevent someone else from getting it first.


3. Assumed Value: “Wow, This One is an Even Better Bargain!”

The assumed value principle relies on lack of consumer knowledge. Yarrow describes it using shoes as an example:

Most people don’t understand why one pair of shoes is $80 and another $400. So we rely on the price as a measure of quality and style. That explains why those $400 shoes that are now $150 seem like a much better purchase than an $80 full-priced pair.

Then, since we don’t want to miss out or let the competition get it, we buy the $150 pair of shoes based on their assumed value. In this situation, Yarrow recommends that consumers ignore the “original” price of the item. Ask yourself if you’d buy the same shoes if they always cost $150.


4. Emphasis on Saving Over Spending: “Today, You Saved $30!”

Next time you shop at a store that’s having a sale, pay attention as the cashier hands you a receipt. Chances are, he or she will smile and tell you how much you’ve saved. You’re also likely to see the total savings emphasized at the bottom of the receipt. According to Yarrow, retailers do this to distract you so you won’t focus on the amount you’ve just spent.

Saving $30 is great. Saving $30 on an extra $150 you didn’t plan to spend in the first place? Not so great. Yarrow suggests carrying cash, so you even if you’re tempted, you can’t over-spend.

But remember, cash doesn’t provide the same consumer protections you get with a credit card. That’s why we recommend shoppers use a prepaid one-time debit card like Kaiku or Green Dot to get the best of both worlds. Click here to watch our video about prepaid cards.


5. Time Investment: “I’ve Spent Two Hours, I Have to Buy SOMETHING!”

Whether you’re combing the clearance rack, navigating the aisles during a 1-day sale or clicking your way through a penny auction, it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re pursuing a hot deal. Often, shoppers feel that they’ve invested too much time to go home empty-handed. Tired and overly stimulated, you may buy something just to make good on your time investment.

Writes Yarrow:

Finding something, anything, can feel like winning a scavenger hunt – and of course you can’t leave without the prize. Perspective is, again, the key. Ask yourself if you really want the item or if your[sic] caught up in the moment.

Before you buy something on impulse, stop and count to ten. Think about the other four factors that are affecting your psychology. Would you buy this item if it wasn’t on sale? Even though it’s marked down, can you still afford to spend the extra money?


The Shopaholic High is Real

In addition to the five traits described in Psychology Today, research also suggests that

For some individuals, shopping triggers a release of dopamine, a neurological chemical associated with pleasure.

shopping — especially impulse buying — triggers a chemical high in the brain. Scoring a bargain releases dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure.

And if you’re a shopaholic, you might have higher levels of dopamine than the average person.

According to a Vanderbilt University study in 2011,

Dopamine … affects impulsivity and even the urge to acquire things. In healthy brains, sensors keep dopamine at proper levels. But some people have a specific deficit in the way the brain regulates dopamine.

PhD candidate Joshua Buckholtz, who helped conduct the Vanderbilt study, said that, “The people who scored highest on our trait measure of impulsivity had upwards of four times the amount of dopamine released.”


Use This Knowledge to Stay In Control

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in some retail therapy once in a while, and sometimes you can get a great bargain on sale. But too much shopping can also put a strain on your mental health and your wallet. We’re all vulnerable to certain psychological traits and chemical qualities that affect our behavior.

Don’t feel weak-willed or stupid when you find yourself succumbing to an impulse buy. Instead, recognize the factors that may have influenced you. Learn the best ways to return a product then learn from your mistake and try to alter your future behavior.


What Do You Think?

Do you think psychological or chemical factors affect your shopping patterns? Do you frequently impulse-shop and experience buyer’s remorse? We’d love to know what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments below.


See Also

Why We Fall for Scams: The Human Brain Isn’t Wired to Avoid Warning Signs of Fraud
National Consumer Protection Week 2013: 5 Tips Every Consumer Should Know JustFabulous Class Action Lawsuit 

About The Author

Miranda Perry is the staff writer for, where she blogs about consumer issues, fraud and cyber security. She hopes to inspire readers to think critically about the world around them and take action to improve their lives.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.