Opinion: This holiday shopping season is going to be tough. Here are 4 ways to avoid overspending

Most of us don’t realize it, but our brains are inherently lazy. Due to both the availability of resources and functional properties, neurons (or brain cells) tire with use. To avoid its own fatigue, the brain takes shortcuts and tries to make quick “intuitive” judgments rather than long, drawn-out considerations. These rapid assessments of the world can be incredibly useful as we make thousands of decisions every day, but they can also often lead to errors in judgment.

Retailers and traders know this. The essence of decision making usually resides in the limbic system, which regulates emotions, memories and habits. That means nostalgia and traditions drive many of our holiday shopping, making it easier for retailers to trick your brain into tugging at your heart.

To make sure you’re making rational decisions amid the shortages this holiday season, there are things you can do to teach your brain to slow down and think through every purchase.

It might sound silly, but lists can keep the emotion from dominating the shopping trip. By slowly thinking through each item you might need ahead of time, you will remove the burden of decisions and increase intentionality in your purchases. Jotting down a list quickly in advance doesn’t count, as it opens the door to distrust of what you’ve written and makes it much easier for you to walk away from it and fall prey to retailer marketing tactics. By having a list that you know you’ve thought through, you can train your brain to be sure that you won’t be making the extra purchases just in case the retailers want you to.

Minimize discomfort

Just like you can listen to a favorite podcast and wear some gardening shoes, you can get ready to go shopping. Discomfort leads to urgency in decision making, which leads to purchases that meet immediate needs rather than solid strategic purchases. Once in a store, it is often difficult to find a place to sit or a toilet, which encourages you to rush shopping and do some convenience shopping. Even a few minutes to breathe deeply, have a snack, drink water, go to the bathroom, and sit down for a while to review your list before you go shopping can reshape the physical stress signals your body sends and slow down your process. to make better choices. This short-term investment can generate big savings in time and money over a shopping trip (in person or online).

Manage your prejudices

To influence your purchases, merchants take advantage of cognitive biases in advertisements, floor arrangements, display techniques and more. They often display big-ticket items next to more moderately priced items, knowing that most customers will buy in a mid-range. These more expensive items skew the customer’s perception of value, and they end up buying an item that is slightly more expensive than expected, buying more items, or both. To further take advantage of this effect, retailers display the original price of an item on sale.

Another cognitive bias that leads us to buying splurges, overspending, and questionable decisions is the scarcity effect, which describes the change in our perception of an item when it is rarer. Retailers exploit this by offering an offer or product for a “limited time only” or “while supplies last”. Our brain perceives these advertising signals as a threat and speaks of competitiveness and our fear of missing out.
Scarcity is aversive and it triggers the desire for abundance. As we saw at the start of the pandemic with toilet paper and cleaning supplies, when items are harder to find, customers buy larger quantities when they find them, piling up the items for themselves. against the possibility of a continuing future shortage. In addition, this need for abundance leads customers to become less selective, and they will buy other items to fill in the gaps.

Every Black Friday, buyers get carried away. Current shortages in the global supply chain mean we can expect record battles throughout the holiday season over the latest Pumpkin Pie Spice Jar and the latest Baby Yoda toy on the shelf. The traders are counting on it. Instead of replacing items that will be out of stock for an extended period of time due to supply chain issues, they will leave labels with a gaping hole on the shelf, while making sure to add alternatives and options to proximity. They will want you to see the gap and feel the panic of missing items. This is a clear signal that what they claimed is true: everything in the store is only available “while supplies last”.

Many people saved money during the pandemic and have excess savings. Even more than in years past, retailers will take advantage of this to get them to spend. And in an age of supply uncertainty and inflation, our brain’s fear centers are poised to shield us from pain and loss, creating an ideal landscape for marketing ploys.

Check your emotions

Holiday marketing campaigns are designed to tap into deep-rooted emotions. Longing is a special form of long-term memory that activates reward pathways in the brain as well as regions of memory. Interestingly, it also activates an area called the striatum, which plays a role in motivation, action planning, and decision making. When triggered by watching an ad or listening to a song, that “pink glow” on childhood memories motivates you to do something, like buy a little extra something for your sibling.
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After a disrupted holiday season last year, our brains are looking for some extra pleasure to add to this memory network. We’re going to be especially responsive to messages that remind us of past vacations, and we’re most likely going to want to purchase some extra gifts and food in an attempt to recreate, and perhaps surpass, the fun we remember. Holiday advertising typically features traditional family reunions and interactions to remind you of the past. This year, details like music, fashion and games from earlier eras will be added to capitalize on key markets.

We will also potentially be even more easily triggered by environmental cues, especially smells related to positive vacation experiences. Retailers are also likely to use them to increase their sales.

If you are shopping and you feel nostalgic for someone, text them and let them know that you are thinking of them rather than overbuying. If something reminds you of someone or an old story, take a photo or take a screenshot and spend some time remembering it later, no purchase is necessary.

Knowing about holiday marketing tips usually helps you defend yourself against them. This is the value of metacognition, or think to think. When we engage our brains to analyze itself, we begin to observe and shape our own behaviors accordingly. This is how we can use these strategies to make rational purchasing decisions.

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an error in the author title at the Science Museum of Virginia. She is a scientist there.

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