Yes it may seem that they're having sales and accepting coupons to help you save money but really, they only want to help you part with your money. Not to say that's bad, mind you. Everyone has to make a living but it's something you should be aware of that's easy to forget.
Stores, and I'm going to focus on grocery stores from here out to simplify things, have sales to get you in the door. They figure they can absorb a little loss on a few products if it gets you in the door where they can entice you to buy more things.
I feel I should mention that the store isn't doing you any favors by accepting coupons. The store is reimbursed the full face value of the coupon by the manufacturer plus 8 cents more. It's all right there on your coupons if you want to read the fine print. And while 8 cents doesn't sound like a lot think about how many coupons that store takes in every week. If your store doubles or triples coupons they're usually taking a loss but if it gets you in the door or keeps you loyal they figure it's worth it.
Some sales are great for the shopper, especially if you go in and buy just the things on sale. It's perfectly OK to do that, by the way. But stores use a lot of tricky pricing games and even organize the store to try to get you to spend more.
First let’s talk about the layout of the store. Items you need are often at the back. You have to walk past aisles of prepackaged high priced snack foods to get to the milk for instance. You can combat this by sticking to the outer ring of the store, produce, meat, bakery, dairy are usually along the edges.
Grocery stores often place higher priced items on the end caps. Those are the ends of the aisles. For instance the name brand boxed oatmeal may be on the end cap but it you take the time to go down the aisle you'll see the store brand is cheaper. The store counts on you either grabbing it as you go by the end cap and not going down the aisle at all or ignoring the other options down the aisle because you've already got your oatmeal in the cart, why look for more?
Stores also put items that appeal to kids on lower shelves where they can easily been seen by children and they can talk you into getting it. Higher priced items are on your eye level with the lower priced versions being on the shelves above and below. Often they also mix store brand in with name brand. You may see the cheaper store brand price but accidentally grab the name brand item. Also items that are on sale are mixed in with items that are full price, this is especially tricky if only certain "selected varieties" of one type of product are on sale. You might grab the green box of jiggle blobs when only the red boxes are on sale. The store is counting on you being too rushed or too embarrassed to ask that the item be removed for your order and replaced with the version that was on sale.
Ever notice that the store smells wonderful? Stores often have bread baking or popcorn popping. Anything that smells good and makes you hungry will make you buy more food. Ever notice the store's music selection? It's usually slow paced, not because more people enjoy that type of music but because it causes you to subconsciously slow your pace. The slower you're walking the more time you have to notice the great products they have for sale! This is also why stores don't have windows. It's not a space saving or security feature, it so you'll lose track of how long you've been in the store.
Impulse items, "things you didn't know you needed", are at the register or near the front door. At the register you're tired and rushed and ready to be done with shopping so you'll by anything that looks interesting or might perk you up. Candy bar and a soda anyone? Items at the front door are designed to catch you as you walk in. You figuratively have all your cash in hand so you feel you can afford a little splurge you hadn't planned on.
Another trick stores use is a limited time sale. Sometimes they use the wording "2 days only" or "3 days only" Sometimes it's "Hurry in! Sale prices are good only for a limited time!" or "Limited quantities!"
The point with these types of sale is to encourage you to make an impulse buy without taking the time to think it through as you would before making a normal purchase. By using these wordings they are creating a sense of urgency, "Buy it now!) But remember to pause, decide if the 'deal' is really a deal, check the competition's prices and look for coupons to combine with the sale for a truly good deal!
The problem with fighting these tactics is that they take advantage of human nature. We don't even realize we're being tricked. It seems like our idea but it's designed to make us feel that way.
The best way to avoid these tricks is to make a list and stick to it! Yes you may find some produce that's being marked down that you hadn't expected or some meat that will expire tomorrow if it's not frozen and has been marked down and there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of those deals, just be mindful of the impulse buys and take the time to go down the aisle to find what you need and make sure you're getting the best value for your cash. If you always fall into the soda and a candy bar trap at the register, hit up the store water fountain (if they offer a bathroom, they'll have one) before you hit the registers. Sometimes just being thirsty can make you feel hungry.
Ever notice those cute little child sized carts? The store knows if the child is pushing a cart around they're bound to put some items in and when they do you'll be to distracted to notice until you're at the register or you'll think it's cute that they've done their shopping and buy the items they've selected. Those cute mascots, balloons, coloring pages, free cookie samples and cute race car carts are all designed to make your kids want to come to the store with you and, once there, talk you into buying things, and keep them happy while you're there. If the kids are fussing, you'll leave early or be too distracted to fall for all the carefully arranged traps. Another plus of these kid friendly items is if a child has always been to X store and has happy memories of going there as a child they're more likely to return there when their grown and spend their money. "Get 'em while they're young" build store loyalty early and it will last.
Now let's talk about those tricky sales. The sales listed on the front page of the grocery store sale fliers are called 'Loss Leaders'. The grocery store is taking a loss on these items to get you in the door. As I said before, once you're in they figure your theirs and you'll leave with lots more items than those listed on the sales page.
Sale prices are often written in a way to make them harder to understand as well. Everyone knows that 2 for $5 means that each one is $2.50 but what about 3 for $5 or 5 for $8? Grocery stores count on you not carrying a calculator and not knowing exactly how much you're spending. The easy way to combat this is to in fact carry a calculator with you, your cell phone probably has one, or make a list of common sale price combos to keep in your wallet or coupon file.
Another method they use is the 10 for $10 or 5 for $5 sales. You might be thinking "That's easy math! They're a dollar each!" But the store is counting on your buying multiples. Because it's 10 for $10 you might feel you need to actually buy all 10 even if you only need 2. Resist the urge to buy multiples (unless you actually need them or have a wicked coupon deal)
Stores also use buy one get one free sales in this same way. At most stores BOGO items ring up at half price. So if the sale is Buy one box of cereal for $3.00 and get one free and you only buy one you're actually getting it for $1.50. You don't have to buy two just because the sale is worded that way. Some stores have their registers set up to ring the first item at full price and the second one as free, so you'll need to check your stores policies to find out. Check their website, sometimes the actual sales paper will say "Item rings at half price". Also if you take advantage of a BOGO sale and decide to get both items you can use two coupons because technically you're still buying two items.
Did you know that four for a dollar is cheaper than 25 cents each? I used to work in retail, setting prices and sales and once I did an experiment. Completely non scientific of course but I had some little Christmas tree ornaments. I priced them at 25 cents each and made a sign. After a week I'd sold just a few. I changed the sale sign to say "Four for One dollar" and they sold much better! Even though $1.99 is just a penny cheaper than $2.00 we've been trained to see it as a much better deal. Be mindful of that.
Going back to those sales fliers, have you ever noticed that sometimes the sale price isn't listed? Sometimes it says "Without card item rings at regular retail" or "50% off" but they never tell you what regular retail is or 50% off of what. You have to go into the store to find out. It makes it harder to comparison shop between stores and once again gets you in the door and in their web. This is where have a price book comes in handy.
I hope you can be mindful or these tricks and get out of the store with the items you need and some money left over.