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How Bath-and-Beauty Stores Trick You Into Buying Lotion You Don’t Need

It’s happened to every woman I know: You walk into a pretty soap store just to browse, and you walk out with $100 worth of beauty products. You’re not sure how it happened, you’re not sure if you need the products, and you’re not even sure if you’re upset about losing $100. All you know is that some nice girl showed you some nice things, and now that store has your money.

What happened was that you fell victim to the many deceptively simple psychological tricks that stores like Bath & Body Works, The Body Shop, L’Occitane, Lush, Savon, and Kiehl’s (to name a few) use to get you to buy things you don’t need. I’ve fallen victim to them, too — and I know, because I used to use them when I was a bath-and-beauty store sales assistant. An exposé!

The Question Game
The easiest way to tell if someone knows anything about sales is to listen to the first question they ask you. If it’s “Can I help you?” then they’re novices. “Can I help you?” is a yes-or-no question, and our default answer to a stranger is always “no.” (It’s easier, and it covers our butts.) That’s why good salespeople will ask, “How are you today?” or “What can I help you find?” or, my favorite, “Where did you get that amazing handbag?” By engaging a customer in conversation, a salesperson now has an “in,” and they’ve established a human connection (i.e. trust) which they can then use to figure out why the customer is in the store and what they might like. That’s why my handbag line was so great. I was no longer a salesgirl trying to hunt down your money, I was a nice girl making you feel good about yourself. You suddenly liked me and wanted to hear more. 

Don’t Let Them Touch You
Walking through a bath-and-beauty store is kind of like trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. If they touch you, you run a big risk of being infected. Because when someone touches you, you’re more likely to buy something. It’s psychological. Part of it is they’re putting a nice product on your skin that you wouldn’t have tried otherwise, and another is that you now have a physical human connection to the salesperson. Sorry, you’re now part of the zombie horde.

Don’t Put the Lotion in the Basket
Unless you’re willing to drop major dough or are stockpiling shower gel for the apocalypse, do not take the basket the nice salesgirl offers you. If you hold something in your hand, your brain makes an automatic connection between what you’re holding and how much you’re spending. If you drop it into a basket, though, the price tag goes out of sight and out of mind, meaning you’re going to remember you have something awesome, but not how much that awesome thing costs. The next thing you know, you’re at the cash register paying $93.56 for shower gel, lotion, hand cream, almond face scrub, a loofah, and a tinted lip balm. Individually they didn’t seem to cost that much. Now, you’re about to drop a Benjamin. Why? Because you took the basket, dummy!

Don’t Follow Your Nose
So you came in to browse and decided to try the hand cream up front. You flip out over its delightful mango-papaya scent, but mention that you don’t need hand cream right now. You think you’re free, until the salesgirl mentions that the same fragrance also comes in shower gel, bubble bath, shampoo, candles, etc., and you cave on the bubble bath. As you walk towards the register, you find out there’s also a mango-papaya oil burner. It’s $7.95. Why not? Next to the oil burner is mango self-tanner. Damn. You need one of those but haven’t gotten to CVS to pick up Jergens… do you see what’s happening? It’s called Cross Product Sales. The reason these stores sell all their products in the same fragrances is so they can hook a casual shopper on one thing and then add more things from there, and because they handed you a basket to put the first product in, it’s easy to grab more. See how it’s all one big conspiracy?

Avoid the Doodads
So now that you have a basket filled with goodies, you’re waiting in line to pay. Around the register you’ll see clear boxes filled with cute little things like bars of soap or lip gloss or oil-blotting sheets, most of which only cost a couple bucks. These are called “add ons” because you casually pick up a few and add them on your crazy pile of products. And you probably know this already, but everything positioned close to the register is a trick: “Add ons” are a way to bump your sale from $26.95 to over $30, which helps stores make sales targets. Beware.

Play the Game, Don’t Hate the Players
If the salesgirls and -guys don’t do any of these things I’ve just mentioned, walk out. Don’t buy anything. You’re probably thinking that makes no sense, but hear me out. Because you’re not really paying for soap, you’re paying for the way buying the soap makes you feel. My managers straight up told me that if people wanted cucumber-melon shower gel, they’d go to Target and get a 32-ounce bottle for $2.99. But they don’t. They walk into the store and pay $8.99 for 10 ounces of the same stuff because buying it makes them feel good.

The reason shopping at these stores feels different than shopping at Target is because of the customer service. The salespeople are there to move product, and that product isn’t the bottle of lotion so much as it is the happiness that that bottle of lotion’s supposed to bring you. If the salespeople are doing their jobs well, though, you don’t notice the psychological games, and instead see only that a nice person is going out of their way to help you find things that will make you happy. Their job isn’t to make you buy things you don’t want, it’s to convince you that you deserve to treat yourself to things you do want. Actually, the reason I liked working in these stores so much was that nine times out of 10, I could get a person to walk out of the store in a much happier mood than they were when they walked in.

If you think I’m just spinning everything like a good little salesgirl, maybe I am. But I’ll let you in on one final secret that I learned: The women who walk in, make a beeline for the antibacterial hand gel, and walk out always look stressed. The women who walk in, enjoy the “show” we put on for them, and indulge in something they don’t necessarily need tend to leave happy. So, now when I walk into any of these stores, I’m aware of the games and am careful not to get taken in, but I play along. I let myself indulge in maybe one thing I didn’t need but that I want, and enjoy the ride without paying the price. (Which is usually between $2.99 and $93.56.)

Meghan O’Keefe is a writer and comedian who lives in New York. She hopes she never has to work in retail again because explaining this piece will be awkward. She has a silly blog about how her mom watches Game of Thrones.


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