Stores like Target, Walmart and Costco are go-to shopping destinations for bargain hunters. With consistently low prices, plus coupons and other sales regularly available, it’s easy to leave these stores feeling like you got a good deal. However, many big-box stores get you to spend more than you intend to — or should — with their secret money traps. Make sure you know how to spot these traps before you open your wallet at checkout.
Perishable Bulk Items
Buying bulk items that will expire before you use them is one of the biggest money traps you can fall into when shopping at warehouse stores, said Alice Gerwat, senior content editor at Magic Freebies.
“Even if you have the storage space for a large quantity of something, this doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely be able to get through it all, and you may end up chucking food or toiletries away because they go off before you can use them up,” she said. “This is particularly lucrative for big box stores with fresh food that goes off pretty quickly, because you’ll feel compelled to come back and buy a big expensive bulk pack all over again.”
Discounts on Brand-Name Items
Just because brand-name items are discounted at warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, it doesn’t mean it’s the best deal you can get in the store.
“These stores offer great deals on big-name brands, which can make it seem worthwhile, but it’s often still better value to purchase their own brand items,” Gerwat said. “These items are often of the same quality but with a much lower price tag, so don’t be fooled by big discounts on household names. This is especially true for alcohol.”
“Many times stores will advertise something as buy-one-get-one-free, but you don’t always have to buy both,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.com. “While some stores will require that you buy two to get the price, others will basically just cut the price on the item in half, no matter how many you get. Be sure to check the label and the store’s policy before stocking up.”
Costco is famous for its plethora of free samples. And even though they’re free, this is actually another money trap. That cheesecake or meatball you tasted might be so good that you add it to your cart — even though you had no plans to buy it before tasting it. Avoid the samples to resist this spending temptation.
Sale Items That You Can Buy for a Lower Price Elsewhere
If you spot something marked down at a big-box store, your immediate reaction is that this is a good deal. However, it’s important to take the time to do a quick price comparison search on your smartphone to see if you can actually get it cheaper elsewhere.
Paying For a Membership That You Never Use
If you’re paying for a membership at Sam’s Club or Costco but you never actually go, you’re throwing that membership fee away. Make sure you shop at the store often enough to make your membership worth it; otherwise, cancel it.
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Warehouse clubs often sell glasses and lenses for less than other places, but sometimes you really do get what you pay for. Since this is an item you’ll be using every day, make sure you’re not sacrificing quality to save a few bucks.
Store Credit Card Offers
The cashier might tempt you to open a store credit card at the checkout with an attractive sign-up offer, but make sure you know what you’re really signing up for before applying. Retail cards tend to have higher annual percentage rates than traditional credit cards.
As of December 2019, Target’s RedCard has an APR of 24.65%, and the Walmart Rewards Card has an APR of 26.99%.
Shiny New Electronics at the Front of the Store
Warehouse clubs often put the latest TVs, electronics and other tempting tech right by the entrance. Maybe a new TV wasn’t on your list, but if you are met with it first thing, you might be tempted to buy it. Don’t fall for this trap.
'Open the Wallet' Pricing
Retailers like Target and Walmart often stock the entrance with inexpensive seasonal items. These are usually things you don’t need, but the visual appeal and low prices can tempt you to add these items to your shopping cart. Once you do, you might feel like since you got such a good deal, you can spend more on other stuff inside the store.
Full-Price Seasonal Items
These seasonal items are really two traps in one. Target and Walmart will place their attractive seasonal merchandise at the front of the store a month or two before the season or holiday has actually begun, selling them to you at full price. If you wait until the end of the season or the day or two after the holiday, all of these items will be heavily discounted.
Center Aisles Filled With Things You Don't Need
Costco will often place essential items in outside aisles, and pack the center aisles with things you probably don’t need — but might want if you see. Avoid this money trap by only shopping the exterior of the store. Stick to your list if you have to venture to the center.
Psychologically Appealing Signage
Don’t be fooled into buying something you don’t need just because you see a sign designating a “limited time offer” or a “new low price.”
According to Wise Bread, “in many cases, the price of a ‘limited time offer’ is the same price the item has been for months, and the ‘new low price’ is simply the introductory price of a product.” Walmart famously puts “everyday low price” signs everywhere to make you think you’re getting deals on regular-priced items.
Do a quick Google of the item on your phone to see if these signs are really denoting a good deal or simply tempting you to buy.
Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s seem to always have coupons available as well as “sale prices” on most items. You might think this means that you’re always getting a good deal at these stores, but this is actually another money trap.
According to Wise Bread, these retailers “sell very little at full-retail, and at the same time, they give consumers the perception that they’re scoring a great deal by issuing coupons and limited-time discounts. So in essence, the sale price becomes the everyday price and shoppers need to keep this in mind when price comparing.”
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Best Buy often puts the most expensive items at the front of the store. For example, they’ll put $3,000 HDTVs at the front, with cheaper model TVs toward the back. This way when you get to the cheaper TVs, you’ll consider them to be a good deal. This is known as “decoy pricing,” according to Wise Bread.
Giant Shopping Carts
Many big-box stores have oversized shopping carts so that no matter how much stuff you put in it, it doesn’t actually look full. This can trick you into thinking you have less stuff in your cart than you actually do and tempt you to continue adding more items.
Walmart and other big-box stores employ a tactic called “odd-even pricing” to make you think an item costs less than it actually does, Business Insider reported. For example, if something costs $9.73, your mind quickly reads it as costing $9, when really it costs close to $10.
Grouping Clusters of Related Products Together
Perhaps you went to a big-box store to buy a single item, like a new camping tent. Because these stores are huge, they can stock it with tons of tempting items around every turn, so when you go to the aisle that sells tents, you’ll also find other camping supplies like sleeping bags and fishing rods. Even if you didn’t intend to buy these items, when you see them, you might just add them to your cart.
It might be embarrassing, but we’ve probably all caught ourselves singing along to the music at a big-box store at one time or another. The music is intentionally catchy, Business Insider reported. The playlists are carefully curated to make you want to stay in the store longer, tempting you to keep shopping and spending more money.
Expensive Items at Eye Level
The best bargains are usually found on upper and lower shelves. Retailers will place higher-priced items at eye-level, where they know you’re inclined to look first. Do a quick glance up and down the shelves before falling for this money trap.
Especially around the holidays, stores like Walmart and Target will display appealing gift sets. Perhaps you wanted to give someone new lotion as a gift, but spot a beautifully packaged lotion and hand soap gift set that undoubtedly costs more than just the lotion alone. Sometimes the items in the set really do cost less when bought together, but other times this is just another way to upsell you.
Odds and Ends at Checkout
Stores like Target stock their checkout area with items like gum, batteries and snacks, and when you’re waiting in line, your eyes are naturally drawn to these items. Before throwing any of them in your shopping cart, ask yourself if it’s something you actually need.
When you’re shopping at a big-box store online, you might go to check out, only to find out that you haven’t met the minimum spend requirement to qualify for free shipping. Before you add things you don’t need to your cart just to avoid shipping costs, consider using the pick up in-store option instead. Target, Walmart and Costco all offer this service that will save you from spending more than you need to.
When you shop at Kohl’s, you commonly end up with a coupon or Kohl’s Cash promotion in your bag that you can use during your next shopping trip.
“This offer […] creates a return visit and purchase, which the consumer may not have otherwise made without the voucher,” said Kendall Perez, formerly a savings expert at Coupon Sherpa.
Recognize these “bounce-back” promotions as a retail strategy, and don’t buy something you don’t need just because you can get a discount for it.
Target is known for collaborating with top people and brands for clothing and home goods collections, like Hunter boots and HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines. Kohl’s and Walmart also employ this tactic to get you to spend.
These collaborations not only tempt you to buy things you don’t need because the big names make you feel like you’re getting a deal, but they also create hype that brings you to the store or website, where you’re more likely to spend even more.
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About the Author
Gabrielle joined GOBankingRates in 2017 and brings with her a decade of experience in the journalism industry. Before joining the team, she was a staff writer-reporter for People Magazine and People.com. Her work has also appeared on E! Online, Us Weekly, Patch, Sweety High and Discover Los Angeles, and she has been featured on “Good Morning America” as a celebrity news expert.