Why It's So Hard To Buy "Just One Thing" At Target

Raise your virtual hand if you’ve ever walked into Target in search of one or two very specific things — basic, undeniably necessary stuff like toothpaste and paper towels — and somehow emerged over an hour later with minimum $100 less to your name, the proud new owner of several snacks, beauty products, and random tchotchkes you never knew you needed. Even if you’re not a big shopper, chances are this has happened to you, because it’s happened to a lot of us.

“We can’t remember [the] last time we left without spending $100!” Jen Coleman and Laura Wiertzema, the duo behind popular Target fan account @targetdoesitagain, confess to Refinery29 via email. “Especially if we take our kids with us ... It’s almost like Target knows we won't feel bad adding some cute dishes or a dollar spot item for $2.99. You leave feeling happy because you got some new bowls or a new pair of shoes and you didn't break the bank. It’s instant gratification!”

This is called the Target Effect, and like so many good things, it has its own entry on Urban Dictionary, plus a host of memes made in its honor (which the company has occasionally encouraged). But it’s not just a phenomenon in the minds of internet denizens and dedicated fans of the red-and-white bullseye. According to experts, there are some concrete reasons why Target — and, to a lesser degree, other major chain stores — drive us to whip out our wallets.

Tom Meyvis, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says big box stores have an advantage over more specialized enterprises because they stock pretty much every product under the sun, which allows them to make clever, cross-category associations in the physical placement of merchandise.

“Stores have an idea about the path [shoppers take],” he tells Refinery29. “Walmart was once famous for doing things like putting like Band-Aids next to fishing hooks and things like that. Something you don’t naturally associate, but once you see them there, it makes sense. So when people come in for something in one category, you can cross-sell, you can sell them something that compliments in the next product category by making sure they’re right next to each other.”

We know that some guests want to grab a coffee at Starbucks and explore the aisles, so we’ve added features like dynamic product vignettes throughout the store that help guests envision how things will fit into their lives,” Joe Perdew, Target’s Vice President of Store Design, shares with Refinery29 via email. “Our revamped Beauty department looks like a specialty shop and is designed to invite guests to try out products, and in Home, products are cross-merchandised and displayed in lifestyle settings, so guests can imagine what they’ll look like in their own homes.”

Meyvis also notes that stores like Target have extensive data on which products customers typically buy together, and they’ll often employ those numbers to decide what should go where within the store’s layout. Some are obvious, like placing flip flops next to sunscreen, while others are so subtle that you might not even notice what’s going on when you pick up hot sauce and Pepto Bismol in the same motion.

Dr. Kevin Chapman, a Kentucky-based psychologist who counts himself among Target’s many fans, notes that one reason why Target in particular can entice unplanned spending is that the company has a long history of hiring and working with some of the best design minds. These people help ensure that not only are Target’s in-house product ranges often a cut above others in their price bracket (hello, high-fashion collabs), but the aesthetic feel of their stores are, too.

“You have good people in the marketing department at Target, and they have really good designers who have created such an ambient atmosphere for people. It’s really well lit at Target, right? There's a lot of color at Target. It's pretty consistent throughout the store and generally that's going to make people feel happier,” he says. And what do people do in happy-feeling environments? Why, spend money, of course!

And according to Perdew, many Target stores are about to get even better and more enticing. The company is making a push to revamp over 1,000 locations by the end of 2020, adding modern flourishes like “LED lighting, and wood paneled accents, along with additional mannequins and products displayed in lifestyle settings.”

The store’s aforementioned dollar section (which, Perdew tells us, is actually called “Bullseye’s Playground”), typically located at the front of the store near check-out, is another big reason you might find yourself walking out with random items. While things there aren’t always a literal dollar, they’re usually so affordable (not to mention cute), that you don’t think twice about plunking them in your shopping cart. It’s only after you get home that you’re all, why did I just drop $8 on a polka-dotted tablecloth when I don’t even own a dining room table... or a dining room?

Dr. Chapman also observes that Target, like many other stores, practices something called “psychological pricing.” Ever notice how stores love to make things $9.99 as opposed to just rounding up to the $10 we all know it really costs? That’s a prime example of psychological pricing. Putting a nine at the end of a price listing makes us feel like a product is on sale or a good bargain, even when it’s not.

Target has branded itself as a place where people can go to get a good deal, which means they’re a lot less likely to hem and haw over whether or not to throw that special extra treat into their cart. Meyvis notes that research into how people shop at grocery stores shows that, oftentimes, consumers are not even bothering to look at prices, because they assume it’s all going to be relatively affordable. It’s worth noting this is a strategy that should never be employed at Whole Foods.

“Target and Walmart and a lot of these places have kind of established themselves as places you can go where you pretty much know you're going to get a good deal, that things aren't going to be so expensive,” Meyvis says. “So people sort of treat it like the grocery store, where they're just putting stuff in their cart. There’s this idea that they wouldn’t screw me [on pricing] because they want to protect their brand.”

While this may seem unbelievable to hard-core bargain-hunters or people who grew up pinching pennies, it’s possible that Target really has established itself as a place people trust, all the way down to their prices.

Mayvis notes that a lot of these strategies may seem like “tricks” — and, okay, to some degree a lot of the things corporations do to get us to spend money could be classified as such. But most people, provided they don’t have a real problem with excessive spending, enjoy the occasional impulse buy. It makes us happy, especially if it’s something we really like.

“I don't want to say that the stores are making a buy things that we don't want, that we don't need,” he explains. “These unplanned purchases are often things that we do like and that we do want. We just didn't think of them.”

And, after all, if you really regret impulse-buying that shag rug or novelty comforter or new pair of rainboots, Target has its sweet, sweet one-year return policy on all Target-owned and branded items. (You’ll have to make your decisions about most other products within 90 days, and there are some exceptions even to that rule.) But it would appear that no one is immune to the pull of Target. As Perdew himself admits, “That whole 'I came in for shampoo and left with two carts full of other things' phenomenon is real!”

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