Picture your typical Christmas shopping experience. You walk into the store and it pretty much looks like a winter wonderland. You’re greeted with festive red and green decorations everywhere. You hear classic carols that warm your heart. You smell faint scents of peppermint in the air. It’s almost like you’ve been transported back in time to Grandma’s house. And suddenly, you loosen your grip on your wallet—in the spirit of Christmas.
Whoops! You just fell for some super sneak holiday marketing tactics (aka marketing tricks).
Marketing Tactics = Big Bucks
Christmas retail sales in the United States for 2020 hit a whopping $789 billion.1 That’s a big chunk of change! And Christmas 2021 is projected to cross the $850 billion mark.2 Yeah, that’s billion with a B. Sheesh.
With that much money on the line, is it really any surprise that retailers will go to such crazy lengths just to get us to buy something? At Christmastime, they pull out all the stops. And with inflation on the rise and the supply chain out of whack—they’re going to be working even harder to get you to part with your hard-earned dollars this year.
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Enter something called “multisensory marketing”—or nostalgia marketing. The general idea here is that stores know we’re emotional consumers. If a product gives us warm, fuzzy feelings or triggers happy childhood memories, we’re more likely to buy it.
When retailers play on our emotions—especially by tapping into more than one of our five senses—we could end up spending way more money than we planned.
Here are some sensory (and non-sensory) retail schemes to look out for when Christmas shopping this year.
7 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: Buy now, pay later programs are still debt. Plain and simple.
People love to say they don’t get caught up in life and forget to make their payments on time, but that’s just not true. Our Ramsey 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.
And you might think that the more money you make, the less likely you are to forget 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! This shady marketing trick takes advantage of everyone.
2. Store Credit Cards
How many times have you heard this one when you walk up to the cash register: “Would you like to open up a store credit card and save an extra 15% today?”
Just say no.
Yep, that age-old slogan works here too. Sure, saving 15% might sound like a deal, but it’s not. “Saving” that 15% is 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 here is you.
Let’s be honest. It’s going to be a little hard to avoid red and green during the Christmas season. But some colors have a big influence on how we view a product or shopping experience.
Take a look at the color red: It creates a sense of “must act now” and is targeted at impulse buyers a lot (think of all those clearance tags). Blue and green, on the other hand, are calmer colors that 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 is played during sales) raises our excitement and encourages us to spend. During the holidays, Christmas classics might make you more nostalgic and willing to spend your paycheck on things you didn’t actually plan to buy. Bing Crosby crooning a little “White Christmas” will do that to you.
The part of our brain that recognizes smells also handles our emotions and memories. So, if a company can get us to lump together a nice scent with their products, sales go up. Department stores are good at using scents to control our spending behavior—especially at Christmas. Take a deep breath and see if you can smell peppermint and Christmas tree balsam the next time you’re in a department store.
You might see a fluffy blanket in the mall and suddenly feel like you just have to pick it up. Or what about that sleek silver laptop? We’ve all done it. And turns out, that’s exactly what retailers want you to do. As soon as you touch or hold a product, you can start to feel a sense of ownership—before you even buy it!
Moral of the story? Follow your mama’s advice and keep your hands behind your back. Okay, you don’t have to go that extreme—but just remember, if you touch it, you’re more likely to buy it.
7. Impulse Buys
You can see it. The end is in sight. You’ve almost made your way to the checkout counter when . . . there it is. The shelves of goodies you never knew you needed—otherwise known as the impulse buys. These items are usually affordable and can even be useful, and you tell yourself you might need them one day. But look out! These eye-catching “can’t live without it” items lining the shelves 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. Sneaky.
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 and make your own gifts). Just remember, there’s a lot of planning that goes into a store’s Christmas shopping experience (both retail and online). Funny enough, the holiday season alone brings in as much as 25% of a retailer’s annual sales.3 But if you keep these marketing tactics in mind while Christmas shopping, you can save yourself from postseason buyer’s remorse. So make sure you live by your budget!
Don’t fall for these slick marketing tricks when you’re shopping this Christmas season. If you stick to your plan and stay true to your Christmas budget with our free budgeting tool, EveryDollar, you’ll have a Christmas that won’t come back to haunt you in the new year.