Although shoppers do make price comparisons, they're not always very good at it, as shown in a paper published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research. In that study, people were given a choice between two pens on which the authors had manipulated the prices. When the lower-priced pen cost $2 and the higher-priced pen cost $3.99, 44% chose the higher-priced one. But fewer than half as many — only 18% — chose the higher-priced pen when the prices were changed by just a penny — to $1.99 and $4.
Comparing only the first digits of prices may seem foolish. But it may be just one example of decision-making shortcuts that humans often take out of necessity. "We focus on what is easy to process," MacInnis says, "because we can't consider everything."
And sometimes it helps to compare apples to oranges, Ariely says. "If you're trying to decide whether to buy a coffee maker for $50, ask yourself what else you could do with $50. If there's something else you'd rather do, then don't get the coffee maker."
Giving cash some credit.
Paying with a credit or debit card can almost seem like not paying at all. No actual money changes hands. There's no real evidence that you're any poorer than you were before. But when you pay with cash, money does change hands, and not in a pleasant direction. You end up with less than you had before. You're demonstrably poorer. It hurts.
A number of studies have shown that shoppers are less prone to impulse buying if they leave the plastic at home and force themselves to endure the pain of paying with cash. Ideally, they should use bills of large denominations, according to a 2006 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research. "People are less likely to spend if they are carrying a $50 bill compared to when they have 10 $5 bills," says Mishra, a co-author of that article.
Part of the herd
Let's say you've been shopping for what seems like forever, and you're running out of ideas for gifts — but not out of friends to give them to. It may be time to join a herd — buy some books just because they're on the bestseller list, buy some wine just because it's on the "best wines under $20" list (these aren't really close friends!), wander around the mall and — trying your best not to look like a stalker — observe what other shoppers are buying, and buy it too.
As Ariely says, "Herding happens when we assume other people know something we don't." You may not end up with super-personalized gifts this way, but you'll save yourself some effort at a time when you're starting to flag.
The Big Mo
So. You've been really, really good — staying mindful of your budget, considering every option (if you get this for person A, then you'll get that for person B), not rushing into anything. In other words, your holiday shopping has yet to progress from looking to buying.
And then finally one day, you decide it's time. You'll buy this one surefire thing, a box of Aunt Erma's favorite chocolate truffles. So you do. And — poof! — your careful, cautious prudence evaporates, and you start buying left and right, smart and dumb.
So-called shopping momentum can be triggered, researchers reported in a 2007 article in the Journal of Marketing Research, when a shopper buys a single item, and in doing so shifts her mind-set from mulling things over to taking action now.
Hunters and gatherers
"There's a shopping center in Germany with a play area for men," says Daniel Kruger, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "A woman can drop off her partner there, and while she shops he can drink, work with power tools or watch sports on TV."
The point being, both of them are happier that way. "Men just want to get what they want and get out," says Kruger, the lead author of a 2009 study published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology that documented fundamental differences in the shopping behaviors of men and women. "Women have a much greater appreciation of detail, a much greater desire to actually experience what they're getting. They want to see several items and compare them."
The researchers linked these differences all the way back to when the man of the cave went out hunting while his mate stayed home gathering nuts and berries — "which is very similar," Kruger observes, "to going to a flea market today and sorting through everything to see what's good."
For the man, a hunting expedition, which might take him far afield, would only count as successful if he brought home the bacon, er, woolly mammoth meat. For the woman, food gathering was more of a social event, something she did with friends, enjoying their company. And if she didn't find much one day, it was no big deal since she could easily go again the next.
These days, the lesson for women may be: If your partner hates going shopping with you, maybe it's not because he's a jerk. Maybe it's just because he's a guy.