Picture your typical Christmas shopping experience. You walk into the store and it looks like the North Pole relocated to your local mall. You’re greeted with festive red and green decorations everywhere. You hear classic carols that warm your heart. You smell the sweet scent of peppermint as memories of opening gifts at grandma’s house on Christmas morning start to flood your mind. And suddenly, you loosen your grip on your wallet—in the “spirit of Christmas.”
Whoops! You just fell for some super sneaky holiday marketing tactics (aka tricks). But don’t worry, you’re not the only one who gets duped by those pesky tricks.
Marketing Tactics = Big Bucks
Christmas retail sales in the United States for 2021 hit a whopping $889.3 billion.1 Yeah, that’s billion with a B. Sheesh. That’s a big chunk of change! And Christmas 2022 is projected to cross the $940 billion mark.2
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With so much money on the line, is it really any surprise that retailers go to crazy lengths just to get us to buy something? At Christmastime, they pull out all the stops. And with inflation still high and the supply chain still out of whack, they’re going to be working even harder to get you to part with your hard-earned dollars this year.
Retailers know a little secret about us: We’re emotional buyers. They know that if a product gives us warm, fuzzy feelings or triggers happy childhood memories, we’re more likely to buy it.
So, when stores play on our emotions and tap into more than one of our five senses, we usually end up spending way more money than we planned. The marketing nerds call that strategy “multisensory marketing,” and we need to be aware of it—for our budget’s sake.
Retail tactics aren’t just limited to our senses though. There are plenty of other marketing strategies to look out for when Christmas shopping this year, both in person and online. Here are eight of the most common.
8 Marketing Tactics to Watch Out for This Christmas
1. Buy Now, Pay Later
Before you split your $400 Black Friday shopping bill into 16 “easy payments” of $25 from now until Valentine’s Day, hear us out. Don’t let billion-dollar companies suck you into buying gifts you can’t afford with buy now, pay later scams.
Is it tempting to break up your payments like that? Sure it is. That’s why companies like Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay keep popping up. But don’t get suckered into this trap. Spoiler alert: It’s just another way to go into debt, which is something those companies don’t want you to realize.
But what if I know I’ll make all of my payments on time and avoid any extra fees? Sorry, but the data says you probably won’t. Our State of Personal Finance report found that 74% of people who used buy now, pay later in the last three months have missed a payment.
Well, I have a really big income, so there’s basically zero chance I’ll miss a payment! Not so fast. The report also discovered that 82% of households making over $100,000 a year have missed a buy now, pay later payment! Trust us—this shady marketing trick takes advantage of everyone.
2. Store Credit Cards
We’ve all been at the cash register when the 17-year-old scanning your items pops the age-old question (with as little enthusiasm as possible): “Would you like to open up a store credit card and save an extra 15% today?”
Just say no.
Sure, saving 15% might sound like a deal, but it’s going to cost you in credit card interest if you can’t pay your bill right away. Plus, once you have that store card, you’ll be tempted to use it even more. You might think you’ll pay it off right away and pull a fast one on the store, but the only one getting taken advantage of here is you. They’re not offering you the discount because they’re friendly—they’re doing it because they know they’ll win in the end.
3. Sales and Deals
Hey, there’s nothing we love more than a good deal. Way too often, though, the only reason we buy something is because it’s on sale. Retailers know that, so they’ll plaster entire stores with those big and bright “25% Off” signs.
Online stores do the same thing on their websites, but they have an extra superpower: free shipping on orders of a certain value. They know there’s a good chance we’ll go back and add more to our cart if it means we can get that shipping cost knocked off.
Shopping for deals and sales is actually a great way to make Christmas shopping more affordable—sales aren’t a bad thing at all. And hey, we love free shipping! But you have to be careful so you don’t wind up with a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need (or really even want) because of deals you “couldn’t pass up.”
If you’re having to spend extra money to save money while checking items off your list, that defeats the whole purpose of a sale! So don’t do it. The best way to save money on something is to not buy it in the first place.
It’s hard to avoid red, green and other bright colors during the Christmas season. And that can be a problem because some colors have a big influence on how we view a product or shopping experience.
For example, the color red creates a sense of “must act now,” and stores use it to target impulse buyers a lot (think of all those clearance tags). Blue and green, on the other hand, are calmer colors that stores use to attract careful, cautious customers.
Next time you’re at the mall and see a red sales tag, take a step back and decide if you really need the item that caught your eye or if you’re about to make a purchase on a whim.
Music affects our heart rates and moods. Studies have shown that slow music makes us shop longer—spending more time and more money. Upbeat music, which stores usually play during sales, raises our excitement and encourages us to spend. And during the holidays, Christmas classics might make you more nostalgic and willing to buy things you didn’t plan to.
Hey, we’re not saying you need to stroll through the department store wearing noise-canceling headphones, but you do need to be aware of the effects the music playing in a store has on your mood.
The part of our brain that recognizes smells also handles our emotions and memories. So, if a company can get us to associate a nice scent with their products, we’re more likely to buy them. Department stores are good at using scents to control our spending behavior, especially at Christmastime. Next time you’re in a store around the holidays, take a deep breath and see if you can smell peppermint and Christmas trees. And if you do, don’t let those smells cause you to spend too much.
We’ve all been shopping and found an item we suddenly felt like we just had to pick up and touch. Maybe it was a fluffy blanket or a sleek silver laptop. We’ve all done it. And turns out, that’s exactly what retailers want you to do because as soon as you touch or hold a product, you start to feel a sense of ownership—before you even buy it!
Moral of the story? Follow your mom’s advice and keep your hands to yourself. Okay, you don’t have to go that extreme—but just remember, if you touch it, you’re more likely to buy it.
8. Impulse Buys
You can see it. The end is in sight. You’ve almost made your way to the checkout counter when there they are . . . the shelves of goodies you never knew you needed, otherwise known as the impulse buys. These items are usually affordable and useful, so you tell yourself, I might need this one day. But look out! These eye-catching “can’t live without it” items lining the shelves (ahem, stocking stuffers) can nickel and dime your budget to death. It’s the store’s last-ditch effort to get you to spend just a little more money before you walk out the door.
Stick to Your Budget This Christmas
Look, we’re not trying to be Scrooge here. There’s nothing wrong with getting caught up in the holiday cheer and buying gifts (or buying stuff to DIY your own gifts). But it’s important to understand that stores put a lot of planning into their Christmas shopping experiences (both retail and online).
Keep these marketing tactics in mind, stay true to your Christmas budget, and save yourself from postseason buyer’s remorse and a busted budget! Then, you’ll have a Christmas that won’t come back to haunt you in the new year. Instead of guilt and debt, you’ll just have sweet memories.
And if you need some help planning your budget for Christmas gifts, we have a free Christmas Present Planner that will help set you on the right track.