03 October 2014

Smart or Manipulated?


Today, I'd like to broach the subject of how to navigate special purchases: travel and airport buys, sales seasons and other time limited offers. I have been raised to believe it was smarter to wait for a discounted price to purchase something, but most marketing tricks and traps are based on time limited events or discounts. How to navigate these opportunities without being manipulated ?

As a consumer, I have been educated to be smart and get the cheapest price I can for one given item quality, but as a marketer, I know limited editions and other discounts are a way to make people buy what they don't really need. Think about it, if people only bought on sale what they buy full price anyway, nobody would ever make discounts (and that's why some luxury brand classics are never on sale, they know people buy it anyway).

These special operations (airport exclusives, seasonal exclusives, discount weeks, sales...) are here to lure us into the (e-)shops and tempt us to buy what we otherwise didn't need and wouldn't have bought. Based on my own experience, education and marketing background, here are a few personal thoughts on how I'm trying to be the smart consumer my mother taught me to be.

Know The Drill

First, I think it's important to be informed on how these operations work from the marketer's standpoint. It's always easier to find your own interest when you understand what the brand's interest is, and what they are trying to make you do. Here are a few examples.

  • Sales Season: In most countries that is regulated. Twice a year, the dates are given in advance, and that's a way to get rid of the current collection before putting the new ones in store. The one thing to be mindful of is retailers who increase the price just before sales to be able to claim a bigger discount. that's forbidden in France but legislation may be looser in other countries. In general, sales can bring good deals as most brands functioning on a seasonal basis (clothes, home decorations etc.) need to sell the rest of their stock to make room for the new season to come. Sometimes they dig out older stuff, but as long as you check the overall quality, it doesn't really matter when it dates back from.

  • Specific, time-limited discount operations: The best example I have in mind are the regular 'private sales' organized by a department store or a chain store (Sephora for example). These are interesting if it concerns the whole store (or most of it), as you can wait for the next one to come in and stock up on what you need during that week. It is much less interesting when it only concerns a selection of products (like Comptoir des Cotonnier's mid season sales that concern some 15-20% of the collection only), as the goal is to attract the consumer with a few bargains but the really interesting pieces usually aren't discounted, but once you're here, you may be tempted to buy them.

  • The time (or space) limited exclusives: Many brands love to produce limited editions - for the opening of a new store (like Uniqlo le Marais exclusive jeans for example), for the season (Autmn nail polish limited edition), for special occasions like Christmas, or airport/travel size collections. The technique is: provide something in limited quantity to create a sense of scarcity (there won't be enough for everybody) and urgency (if I don't buy it now it will disappear). Some brands' concept is based around this, like Sézane (which style and philosophy I otherwise like), who creates monthly collections put online at a specific date and time so clients have to hurry lest their size runs out of stock. My opinion on it is: be wary. Of course, if you are looking for a specific item (say, bronze nail polish) and you happen to find the perfect one in the fall limited collection - then go for it, but the reason for purchase should come from your needs and criteria, and not the fact that it is a limited edition.

  • Bulk Discounts: I'll end these examples with this one. Buy 2 get one free. Get free shipping for orders over XX€. Get this free pouch if you buy XX€ worth of products... These are textbook techniques to increase the average user revenue - how much a customer spends in average in one visit. You came in for a 6€ hand cream, but you get this free gloss sample if you buy for 20€, so you add to your basket a 15€ item that you didn't really need just to get the sample (or free shipment, or 10% discount...). My advice on this one is also: be wary. If you were planning to purchase 50€ worth of items and happen to get a discount or free shipping, or if you just need to add a 5€ pair of socks that you know you will use to save 10€ in shipment, then yes, use this opportunity. But if it makes you spend much more than you intended, or buy things you don't need, then be wary.

Always Start From Your Needs and Wishes

When I do need or want to take advantage of these offers, the best parade I found as a consumer is to come prepared, with a list of items or item types that I need, and stick to it. Here are the things I take into consideration when I make that list:

  • Is there anything I may need from what this store offers? Daily items about to be depleted, an item from my List of the Possible, something that is broken/worn out or on a good way to be...

  • Is there anything in that particular offer I can take advantage of? For example: a general discount to buy expensive products which usually are never discounted, travel sized items at the airport because you are currently making tests on this particular area and it's easier to test on smaller products in case it doesn't work...

  • Would I have bought this item in a regular situation? If that very same item, at the very same price, was a regular buy from the regular shelf (not a self proclaimed discount or limited edition), would you consider buying it?  (I don't consider the proverbial "would I have bought it full price" because I do take advantage of reductions to buy a quality I otherwise can't afford so it doesn't work in my case)

  • Is this item adequate for my needs? Will I use it? Is there another item I already own which does the exact same job? - Finally, I ask myself the basic questions I ponder for any purchase, even in regular situations. The items should correspond to your needs, quality and ethic standards, fit with your preferences etc.

In Conclusion...

As we all know, there is no such thing as being immune to marketing, and there will always be cases when we will indeed make a good bargain but on something we didn't quite need. And that's OK, because from mistakes comes learning and growth. 

One last piece of advice I could give is to not only come prepared, but also with your willpower in full speed - so not when you are tired, frustrated or any other state that tends to make you vulnerable. Better yet, why not make it a fun trip? I know I hate shopping - particularly for beauty products as these stores reek of a terrible perfume mix that gives headaches. But when I receive my little discount coupon from Sephora, I enjoy going through my products, making an assessment of my current stock etc., then crafting a list of what I'm going to purchase. I turn it into a small event. 

In the end, it's about playing the marketer's game, and taking advantage of it, as much as we can. Most of the time, it will mean shunning these "attractive" promotions. Since I started paring down my collection of items and turning to more qualitative and ethical options, I have used sales and discounts to buy a level of quality and craftsmanship I otherwise can't afford or don't want to pay full price for (e.g. cashmere knits). What about you? How do you navigate these "special events"?


  1. These time-limited discount operations are really starting to bother me. Some brands (like La Redoute, Yves Rocher, or one of my favorite ethical companies 'People Tree'), have at least one or other (ever-changing) sort of discount running almost all of the time! It makes you wonder if they don't purposefully raise their original prices so that all (or most) of their customers get that happy 'scored a deal' feeling while still paying an actually realistic price. I normally don't really mind paying full price for something I really want, but when companies have constant reductions it makes me feel cheated to pay full price - which in turn forces me to pay constant attention to the best possible reduction (this or that collection? mid-season or special birthday discount? percentual or fixed coupon or maybe free shipping???). And I have noticed that for my long-term happiness, it's not beneficial to be constantly dealing with promotional newsletters and short-term offers and all that because I get nervous and obsessed :p.
    Sorry for venting!

    1. Yes indeed! We were actually discussing this very matter with my colleague when we went to Sephora to beneficiate from the 25% off coupon that is going on these days - and which is the inspiration for this post. These past years, I've basically never paid full price for a make-up product at Sephora, because they make these "private sales" several times a year. And in these cases you do feel cheated to pay full price, but on the other hand it is time consuming to keep on top of the many reductions to avoid paying full price. Besides, another thing that bothers me is: if they can still make profit at 20-30% off, why is it so exepensive the rest of the time? It makes me feel like a milking cow... I've moved away from most brands that really base their business model (like Yves Rocher or La Redoute, precisely), in order to avoid this uneasiness of needing to be on top of all promotions. Sephora is alright as I receive the coupons in my mailbox, and make-up is hardly ever an urgent need so I can wait :)

  2. Hello Kali,

    Thank you for this interesting and useful post.
    I was a "good consumer" until I become a mum. As you said this surely because of my education and because I watched to much ads...
    Then few years ago, I started also to have reflexion about impulse purchases. It was usual I purchase things in limited editions or to confort me from a bad day... It was stupid, because in fine it never really conforts me. Thinking about it helps me to find what I'm dissatisfied in my life and work about it.
    Now I make lists of what I need (I bought a lot a cosmetics, yarns and sewing supplies...). I do the best to stick to my list. And I also track in a file what I purchased, when and how it costs. It's really usefull because I noticed I forgot rather quickly what I bought (how usefull are impulse purchases...).
    So as you say in an other post I still enjoy to buy something for pleasure but now I have a dedicated budget for it. So I don't feel bad if I buy a new pink pen for my Japanese evening class (for example ;) ).
    For groceries, I like to use the "Drive" because it's easy to compare prices and you can only buy what you need because you don't have to walk all the shop to find eggs or sugar... ;)
    I also filtered newsletters so I'm not tempted anymore with limited time operations and their big shiny button at the bottom written "je craque" :)

    1. Ah, how I hate these newsletters when the call to action is "je craque"! What is that supposed to mean? That I'm "yielding" to temptation? This irks me so much. Anyway, I like those strategies of yours. Keeping track of past purchases is so efficient for me too - when you add the 20€ here, 30€ there to the real amount spent since the beginning of the year, it's frightening. I don't even want to know how much I spent at the BHV since I arrived in Paris - this would be a good way to avoid setting foot in the store though :)

  3. Target (mass merchant store) offers promos when buying in bulk. It really depends how much I use the item & how rapidly I use it. I know I eat my way through a box of Clif bars pretty quickly, so I'll load up if it's worthwhile. But for toilet paper, I don't care. For designer collaborations, it's tricky...I try to make sure I'm not buying it solely for the name attached to it. I skipped Altuzarra/Target, Uniqlo/former Cloak-current Helmut Lang designer, and will be skipping Wang/H&M.

    1. I like buying in bulk from Target when the deal comes with those $5 giftcards. Buy 2, get a $5 giftcard. I've been able to replenish my beauty and feminine product stock this way--one is almost always financed by bulk purchase of the other.

    2. Oh, bulk reductions from US supermarkets is the stuff of legend here. I remember a friend's report when he came back to visiting family in Miami. He was like "they sell orange juice by the galleon! Who is even drinking that much in a week?" I'm guessing it can be interesting financially when it concerns thing we do go through all year long, like... toilet paper?

      As for designer collaborations, that's tricky because the goal is precisely to make us purchase something because of the name attached to it. I also tend to shun them now.

  4. I feel like I might have said this here before (months and months ago), but the "Black Friday" sales in the States are notorious for that "increase the price before the sale" tactic. Since I learned that, I've hated Black Friday more than I already did, especially since people have been shot and beaten up during those sales!

    1. Black Friday is also the stuff of legend on this side of the Atlantic. What I don't understand is: every year in the news you see these people ridiculing themselves by sitting all night long in front of a store and then run like bulls inside the shops, fight each other, sometimes even kill people by accident; but still, the next year they keep doing it. Why? That's a puzzling mystery for me.

  5. I fight the urgency by knowing how the stores' sales cycle works--Gap/Banana/Old Navy have weekly 20-40% off rounds. It's just a matter of waiting for which day will have a higher percentage off. Uniqlo doesn't go on sale as often, but when it does have promos jeans and their oxford shirts go down $10; that's a good time to buy.

    I also have a list split up into needs and luxuries (admittedly the luxuries list is long, haha) where I try not to buy luxuries until more of the needs have been checked off. Or the prioritization of certain purchases shifts down if I move one off the list by buying it--splurge on a treat--say a new shirt or pants, then the other treats--like a watch or jacket get moved down the list where their priority is reassessed the next month. Some items stay on the list for months and eventually are purchased, but most of the time the furor subsides and I end up deleting most of these luxury desires.

    1. I guess it does calm the urgency down when you know there will be sales going on next week anyway. I tend not to enter a store unless I have a precise purchase in mind, too tempting otherwise :)

      It's also a good idea to split lists by priority - a good way to keep to the budget while indulging sometimes. I tend to keep my list to zero for the duration of my shopping fast - although buying nothing proves more difficult than I thought, some purchases are useful! I might steal you this idea after the end of my fast to keep my material budget in check :)

  6. I grew up with a mom who has the philosophy of, "as long as it's on sale!" This meant, regardless of how well an item fit, if it was on significant discount, my mom would make an excuse for it and purchase it. This has resulted in a huge extra closet full of her acquisitions with the price tag still on or maybe just worn once or twice before realizing, "shoot, this does not look that great / is poor quality." Sadly, this training taught my own poor consumption behavior in my earlier years.

    She has gotten better about this FINALLY, now in the later half of her 50s, and I'm now starting to be more cognizant of my own behavior as well. No matter how good a "deal" is, I refuse to buy it (most of the time) without really thinking it through. Sales definitely do not have the same draw they used to. Phew.

    1. I always wonder how strong the influence of education is on these matters. I have been lucky to have parents who were thoughtful consumers and taught me about the value of money, but I wonder how much harder it is when you grow up with a consumerist model at home. That's great if you've been raised with these habits and ponder your purchases today :)

  7. Sales in France are kind of a joke compared to the sales in Canada. Here, you get real sales when you need the items. Example: mid-October, several stores will advertise sales on coats, and they will be the new coats, not old stocks brought back just for the occasion. The official sales, like Boxing Day and Boxing Week, will help you get items reduced from 50 to 70%. Some stores like Banana Republic specialize in nearly constant reduction flash sales. When I understood how to make it work, I never had to buy an item at full price again. Same for shoes and household items at La Baie. When you need a specific item, you just need to be on the watch. Last year I found a Calvin Klein winter coat at 99$ instead of 270$. It was a one- day event, but so worth it. But I agree with your whole post, if you are not careful, there are so many occasions to get tempted and buy stuff you don't need. But for a savvy shopper, it is a dream.