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Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky: Saving cents by sense

By Jean Chatzky ·
Friday, August 15, 2014
Posted: 1 pm ET

Editor's note: Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC's "TODAY" show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP's personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Her eighth and most recent book is "Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security." Jean blogs at and tweets @JeanChatzky. You can find her on LinkedIn and Facebook, too.

If you've been shopping lately -- and by shopping, I mean actually walking through a retail emporium, rather than letting your fingers do the shopping for you -- you've experienced an assault on your senses.

From the music playing in the background to the scents wafting through the men's department, smart marketers are trying to "work as many of your senses as possible," says Paco Underhill, author of "What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping." "There is nothing in a modern store that is put where it is by chance."

The only way for a shopper to have a fighting chance is to understand what these marketers are up to. Let's take it sense by sense.


Your eyes aren't actually deceiving you. Pay attention to the lighting as you walk through just about any store.

"The produce is lit like a movie set," says Underhill. "The bananas and the peaches look better in the store than they ever will in your kitchen." No surprise, produce is one of the most profitable sections of the modern grocery store.

The point: Be aware: Just like a television anchor is lit to show off his or her best features, so is the merchandise. It may not seem quite as flawless once you get it home.

Smell and taste

Good smells (like good tastes) get your salivary glands going. This is why the bakery in many grocery stores is up front and why you can smell a Cinnabon from an airport terminal away. It's also why samples proliferate. When you're salivating, says Underhill, you're a less disciplined shopper. And not just when it comes to what you're smelling or what you're tasting, it comes to everything at the store.

The point: When your mother told you not to shop hungry, she was right.


Research by Joann Peck, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Business, has shown that touching the merchandise makes you more likely to buy it. And the longer you touch it, the more you're inclined to spend.

Naturally, retailers try to get you to touch the goods -- Underhill calls it "petting" -- in a variety of ways. They make an effort to put out goods at an appropriate height for you to run your fingers across them -- or fan out an array of cashmere sweaters as if they were candy. Touch is particularly important in the process of upselling consumers -- getting them to buy more expensive T-shirts or jeans than they might have planned on.

"If I'm in Kate Spade and I'm touching a T-shirt dress and feeling it against my skin, I become more comfortable with it," he says. One sneaky retailing move? Washing the merchandise before putting it out. Some clothes come into the store with sizing (i.e., starch); once you wash them, they get softer.

The point: If you're just looking, don't try anything on.


Music is one of the best ways to make an audience of shoppers feel comfortable in their surroundings.

It's used to make you feel like you belong. For example, retailers will look at who shops on a Monday afternoon versus who shops on a Thursday night and adjust accordingly.

And if you ever wandered into and then out of a clothing store that was playing a particularly loud set (ahem, Abercrombie & Fitch), just be aware that, too, was intentional, says Underhill. "It's there to tell a bunch of people: This is not the place for you."

The point: Be particularly careful in stores where you know you really like the vibe. You might find yourself dropping in "just to look" during your lunch hour and end up spending $40.


A final thought: Find out what's on sale each month and plan accordingly. Here are six things that are not on sale this month -- plus six items that could be sporting healthy summer price cuts.

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1 Comment
Lynne B
August 15, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Definitely never shop hungry! I have made a lot of impulse purchases when hungry. You start thinking about all the dishes you could make with this or that item and before you know it your cart is full, and that quick trip to the store was anything but.