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Psychology of Shopping: When "Free" Isn’t Really Free

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By Aaron Crowe, dealnews writer

Maybe it’s just the cynic in me, but when I see the word "free," I always wonder what the catch is. I don’t necessarily expect a bait and switch — which is illegal — but I expect to pay somehow, either with my time, by getting something I don’t need to get the "free" item, or by feeling guilted into buying something else.

Many websites offer free shipping if you spend a minimum amount of money. Some offer free items if you pay the shipping and handling. Candy stores and grocery stores offer free samples to entice you to buy. Kids eat for free at some restaurants if an adult buys an entree and a drink — all adding up to retail strategies that tempt consumers to spend money for something advertised as free.

"It’s the most magical word to get your attention," says Elliott Jaffa, a behavioral and marketing psychologist. Finding something for free, even if it’s only an idea, makes people feel powerful, special and proud that they got something for nothing, says psychotherapist Judy Belmont, who has a book coming out on life skills education. "If something’s free — they’re getting the upper hand, even if it’s something they don’t want."

If you already think twice when seeing the word "free," you’re ahead of the game. If not, here are some ways it’s done and why it's so effective at getting your money:

Free shipping
Amazon.com helped to create the expectation in consumers that shipping should be free for online purchases, despite the fact that a $25 minimum is required on the site. The lure is so attractive to retailers that they now roll out special shipping offers all the time, especially before the winter holidays. Even Walmart jumped on the bandwagon last Christmas season, offering free shipping on 60,000 holiday items, because every other online business was offering it. But this isn't a universal trend in online shopping. While it has come to be expected in the United States with Amazon, the company found that it didn’t increase sales in France, because shoppers there aren’t used to the freebie, says Bruce D. Sanders, a consumer psychologist and retailing consultant.

Free item, but not free shipping
Seeing something that’s "free" can lead to impulsive buying, even if there are associated fees. These deals are common in informercials, where items sound free, but shipping and handling can bring the actual cost to $20. It’s part of the game of buying, Jaffa says. "You have to look at the fine print."

Free samples
See’s Candy gives out free samples because the guilt of getting something for free often pushes people to buy something in return. Sanders remembers a Toyota dealership giving away free "car care kits," saying that all people had to do was stop by and ask for one. But stopping to get one would lead most people to feel obligated to listen to a sales pitch and more likely to buy either now or in the future.

Guilt works, Sanders says, but guilt plus gratitude is more profitable. A free ice cream scoop or a sample of food at Costco or even a free pen at a bank make consumers grateful enough for the freebie that they’ll likely buy something.

Buy one, get one free
BOGO, as it is often called, encourages people to sample new products. For example, buying a regular-size bottle of Listerine with a small sample size of a teeth whitener for free may get the buyer to return and buy the teeth whitener in a regular size, Sanders says. But the sample size must be smaller than what you’re buying, or it will devalue the newer product the company is trying to sell.

BOGO offers are everywhere; for example, on clothes you thought you’d never need but look like a deal when the second one is free. It’s paying half for something you didn’t think you needed when you entered the store.

"The intelligence of that is to get you in the habit of using a particular product you might not particularly like," says Harry Beckwith, the author of Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy. BOGO also works for keeping a habit up, such as buying two bottles of vitamins and continuing to using them even when you wouldn’t have if you'd run out.

"Free" as a sales tool is unlikely to go away in shopping, especially during a recession, when shoppers are looking for and expecting bargains. While everything’s better when it’s free, just be sure to read the fine print, and don’t get fooled into thinking you’re getting something for nothing.


Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has worked as a reporter and an editor for newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter — @AaronCrowe.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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