The psychology of shopping for bargains

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The shops know we all love a bargain but understanding some of the reasons behind what look like special deals can help you to be a savvier shopper.

Here are some basic insights into how bargains work, and what sales rules there are to help protect you from a deal that looks too good to be true.

How do bargains work?

As you enter a shop you are being targeted by psychological tactics to tempt you to part with your money.

One of the oldest tricks in the retail trade is to mark an object with a price ending in 99p.

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When we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge”

End Quote Dr Dimitri Tsivrikos Consumer psychologist

"These prices are obviously used to convince you that you are spending less than you actually are," says Dr Dimitri Tsivrikos, a consumer psychologist from London Metropolitan University.

A price reduction makes it even more tempting. "The bargain price is appealing to you because it challenges the status quo. The retailer appears not to be in complete control of the final price of the product, and this makes you feel that you are now in control.

"And because of that you feel you can negotiate the final price that you have to pay - whether that is the sale price or even a buy one get one free deal" says Dr Tsivrikos.

But this level of empowerment can confuse consumers. "Brain studies have shown that when we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not."

What the rules are

UK households spent an average of £484 a week, according to the latest statistics by the Office of National Statistics.

Once you have returned home with your bargain you may have second thoughts about it, but there are ways to help protect you.

Consumer protection law

  • Consumer law bans using misleading information to trick consumers into making a purchase
  • Any price drop comparison should be with the most recent price, available for at least 28 consecutive days
  • Comparisons should not be made with prices from more than six months ago

When you shop in a sale, your consumer rights are still protected by the Sale of Goods Act.

If a shop is advertising a sale it has to follow government guidelines in order to ensure it is genuine.

If you change your mind about your bargain you may not be entitled to return it.

You can only return non-faulty goods for an exchange or refund if the shop has a returns policy.

Andy Foster from the Trading Standards Institute says that you should look very carefully at the detail of the offer.

"It should be clearly on show with the comparison prices and dates.

"The higher price should have been in place for at least 28 days for the new price to be a genuine sale price."

"The problem comes when such 'discounts' are claimed and the details of how the retailer arrived at the reference price are missing, or perhaps where it never existed in the first place."

• Top tips when bargain hunting

1) Try to avoid stores that are too busy with loud music. This can confuse and distract you from judging what is a genuine offer.

2) Ask the sales rep to repeat the sales details in a clear and slow manner and if possible ask him/her to write them down.

3) Before you make a decision take a break, count from one to ten and think again about the benefits and perils of the offer

4) Can you shop alone? Peer pressure has been proven to be a key indicator for individuals buying products that they do not need.

5) Never shop when you are feeling emotionally upset. Purchasing to overcome any mood or behavioural troubles is not beneficial in the long term.

6) Go shopping after a meal or when in a good and clear mood. There is evidence that shopping when you feel peckish can make you spend more than intended.

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