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Why Clearance Sales are Psychologically "Irresistable"

Sale shoppers ultimately spend more than non-sale shoppers.

Pink Sales, White Sales, Last Call Sales, Clearance Sales, Grand Finale Sales… it must be January.

For many, January is also a month many consumers buy things they don’t end up using, spend money they wish they hadn’t, and waste time stalking “further reductions.”

Clearance merchandise isn’t called “an irresistible bargain” for nothing. Giant reductions and the way they’re presented in stores and online tap into some primal psychological impulses. Here are five ways that sales make you vulnerable, and how to make better decisions about what to buy this month.

Fear of Missing Out

January sales are typically clearance sales. We know that means when something is sold, our opportunity to buy is gone. This inspires a fear of “missing out” that we often don’t consciously notice -- which enhances the power of our emotional reaction. We may not actually know why we’re jumping to purchase that 80% off sweater that you didn’t actually want before it was reduced. This is especially potent in online shopping when you can see merchandise selling out before your eyes and can’t see who else might be considering your prize. In stores you can at least physically hold the item while you consider it’s true value. The solution is to make a list of coveted items and only buy what you’re sure wanted before it went on sale.


The fear of “missing out” is heightened by the knowledge that you’re competing with others. For many this turns into what I like to call competitive sport shopping. Winning is the goal, sometimes even more so than what we’re buying. Susie was triumphant when she showed me multiple purchases she’d made during a clearance event at Victoria’s Secret. The store was crowded with other shoppers and she described with glee how she’d been able to nab merchandise she was sure others had wanted. Crowds heighten emotions and competition can reduce our ability to think carefully about the true value of what we’re buying. Time is the solution. Take time and few calm moments to level off the excitement of the moment. It’ll reduce the chance of making ultimately an unsatisfying purchase.

Assumed Value

Oddly enough we rely on the price charged for merchandise to understand its value. Most people don’t understand why one pair of shoes is $80 and another $400. So we rely on the price as a measure of quality and style. That explains why those $400 shoes that are now $150 seem like a much better purchase than an $80 full-priced pair that we might use more often. I’ve seen countless dusty boxes of dramatically reduced shoes (and all sorts of other products) in consumers’ homes. The cure is to imagine the sale price as the initial, unreduced price and ask yourself if you’d be as excited.

Focus on Saving Not Spending

Sales shift our focus toward what we’re saving rather than what we’re spending. Tanya was shocked when her credit card bill arrived after a January shopping binge last year. “I couldn’t believe it, everything was way reduced and I saved so much money on what I bought.” Retailers tap into the frenzy of saving by tallying your savings on your receipt or posting savings rather than costs on websites and in stores. The quickest fix is to pay with cash. Credit cards are a buffer and put the emphasis on what you’re getting rather than what you’re giving when you shop. Gift cards are even worse, they can seem like “free money” rather than real dollars.

Capitalizing on Time Investment

Sale shopping, and for many sale stalking, takes time and it’s an emotional investment. Many shoppers feel pressure to make good on that investment by not leaving empty-handed. Finding something, anything, can feel like winning a scavenger hunt - and of course you can’t leave without the prize. Shana attacked the sale racks at Macy’s with zeal, “I looked through that whole department. There wasn’t much left but I found this great dress for 75% off.” Perspective is, again, the key. Ask yourself if you really want the item or if your caught up in the moment.

In my research I’ve found that sale shoppers ultimately spend more money than non-sale shoppers. They often purchase things that aren’t truly satisfying; and because they aren’t satisfied they continue to shop. Additionally, the rush they get from snagging a bargain has an addictive quality - the products they purchase are in some ways secondary.

Getting a coveted item is blissful. Getting a discount is also blissful. Getting both at the same time is harder. A simple shift of focus and bit of planning and is all it takes to master the ability to consistently make that truly great discounted purchase.

More from Kit Yarrow Ph.D.
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