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Attention shoppers: Tricks to beat impulse buys

Marketers know just how to get you when you're at the store. "Today" food editor Phil Lempert shares tips to help you keep purchases under control.

We’ve all done it… walked into a food store wanting to buy just a few things… and walked out with a full shopping cart. We get home, unpack the groceries, look at our reflection on the toaster and ask ourselves: Why did I buy that?

It’s not our fault!

Every store has been carefully designed to direct our actions and our purchases. Being aware of these environmental motivators can reduce our impulse purchases and help us focus on items we want and new products we would like to try.

When stores place complementary items together — like beer and pretzels or baby food and diapers — they are playing on shoppers' impulsiveness. This “integrated” merchandising makes items convenient for shoppers to find and gets them to spend more. Who can resist the shortcake and whipped cream nuzzling the strawberries on your list? What about the end-of-aisle displays that combine pasta, sauce and grated cheese?

So what can we do to defend ourselves?

Impulse items may be new products, samples, well-displayed items or products at unexpectedly low prices. They also entice us with strong aromas (the bakery department) or announcements over the loudspeaker (the "blue light" special). Marketers get us when our senses send messages to our brains that say, "I want this!" or "I can't live without that!"

It's all about that shopping list. Make sure you always have a list — my suggestion is to draw three of four lines right on your list — and these are for those impulse or unplanned items. If you limit yourself to just a few, you’ll satisfy those splurges, but still be in control. If the splurge items are on your shopping list — or you find items that offer big savings — go for it! Otherwise, you will be the next unwilling victim of impulse shopping. Before you buy an impulse item, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • "Will I use this product?"
  • "Does this product replace a product already in my cart?" If it does, compare them side-by-side and then choose.
  • "Why am I buying this?" Did you have a bad day? Are you hungry? Do you deserve a reward? Be honest.
  • "Do I really need or want this?" If the answer is "yes," enjoy!

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .