As the U.S. economy limps out of recession, retailers need to fight for every dollar. But the tactics they use to get customers to spend extra are clearly wearing thin.
We asked our readers to tell us what tricks of the retail trade they find most annoying -- and we received nearly 350 submissions. One thing is clear: American shoppers are getting wise to the sneaky ways stores get you to buy more, especially when it comes to promotions, sales and discounts.
Here are the 15 sales-boosting techniques our readers hate most:
Bulk Buying Required
The biggest complaint in our informal survey concerns the increasingly common practice of requiring shoppers to buy several of the same item to get a discount. That might take shape as an offer to, "Buy 10 for $10" in the supermarket. But what if you don't want 10 packages of pasta cluttering your pantry? Writes one respondent, "If you only need one, that's no sale at all." Clothing stores often offer, "Buy two, get the third free" deals these days. Many of our readers would rather buy one for a 30% discount. "I don't want to 'save money' by buying three of them," writes one. "GGGRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!"
Bulk Buying Suggested -- But Not Required
Almost as annoying as the bulk-buying requirement is when store signage suggests you need to buy multiple items to get the sale -- but you don't actually have to. In fact, in the above example, you might very well be able to buy one box of pasta for $1 even though the sign says $10 for $10. Writes one reader: "I think it's a cheap and shoddy trick on the part of the stores."
Up-Selling at the Register
This tactic came up over and over again in different forms. When buying electronics, no, customers don't want the warranty (in fact, the pitch makes them think twice about buying the item. Is it likely to be defective?). When getting a soda at a drive-through window in a fast-food chain, no, they don't want an apple pie. At a clothing store, no, they don't want the high-interest rate store credit card. And, in bookstores, no, they don't want to contribute to charity.
Our readers were sympathetic to store employees who they know are required to up-sell. One respondent who works in retail explains: "We are not allowed to deviate from this script, and if we do, we're reprimanded." Still, they lament, "In a convenience store, I want the cashier to ring things up I need in a hurry," one writer reports. "Stop pushing things people don't want."
Bait and Switch
This is a time-honored retail sales tactic, and customers find it as annoying as ever. We received numerous reports from shoppers who identify a deal from a circular or newspaper ad, rush to the store -- and the item is already sold out. The "helpful" salespeople are always quick to suggest a more expensive alternative than the original deal. Explains one reader: "For that item there is little if any in stock, but next to it are the more expensive items the store really wants you to buy."
Too Much Fine Print
Our readers are getting quite tired of the complexities of discount offers and promotions. Several respondents gave examples of times they brought coupons to a store, picked out items and were told at check-out that the item is excluded from the sale. One reader vents:"You have to be a bloomin' lawyer to get that fourth 12-pack of Pepsi for 'free.'"
Need we say more? Not only are they a bureaucratic nightmare, but stores count on many consumers forgetting to mail in the documents. This frustration was common: "I always seem to miss the mail-in rebate somehow. So 'free' is never free for me. Not at all."
Readers say they frequently find that the price listed on the shelf -- or even on the item itself -- is lower than the price rung up at the register. Many think stores do this on purpose, hoping customers won't notice or bother to complain. "I want it at the cost that was marked," says one reader. "Get the manager."
Item in Front of the "Sale" Tag on the Shelf Is Not on Sale
This is a corollary to the mispricing complaint that's no doubt familiar to supermarket shoppers everywhere. You pick out a certain brand or flavor of an item because a shelf tag proclaims it's on sale. But then you get charged full price at the register because it was actually a related item that was on sale. Our readers think stores must hope customers will just buy the full-price item. Laments one reader, when the sale is for cranberry juice cocktail, "Why is the sign always in front of the 100% juice? I know why. Creeps."
Telling You How Much You "Saved"
Many readers find it annoying that, as they're paying their bill, the cashier will often tell them how much they supposedly saved by shopping there. "That I call insulting your intelligence," says one commenter. Even worse, another reader notes that when you turn down the much-despised store credit card offer, the salesperson will sometimes say, "'You could have saved X dollars if you had our card.' It's like you're a child, and they're scolding you."
Putting a Coupon on the Receipt
These deals often require another trip to the same store in a week's time to take advantage of this new deal. One reader complains: "So to save $10 dollars using the certificate, you must return to the store, spending time, gas and mileage added to your car, and then spend another $50 dollars or more. This circle is vicious!"
Constantly Rearranging the Shelves
Shoppers want to find the item they came for quickly. Yet stores often rearrange displays as a way to get customers to scan more shelves. One reader writes of a retailer that was constantly moving items so she couldn't find the one brand of shampoo she was looking for. "I realized they were trying to get me to look at everything every time I went in there so I would be tempted to buy more. I stopped going there." Another reader came up with a name for the supermarket version: "I call this the 'Hide the Groceries Game.'"
Cheap Items Are Hardest to Reach
Readers lament that stores put expensive brands at eye level and cheaper items near the floor, or in other inconvenient spots on the shelves. "I dislike having to always look on the lowest shelves in a super market for the best prices," writes one respondent. "It would be nice to have them at eye level for a change."
Staples Are in the Back
A familiar complaint is the time-honored supermarket tactic of putting the most sought-after staples at the back of the store. "I hate it when they stick the milk, eggs, butter all the way in the furthest back corner of the store," writes one reader. "Then they put all that candy, gum, soda, and magazines at the register."
Putting Items Coveted by Children Near the Checkout
It's not only parents who hate this tactic. All shoppers have to hear small children cry and beg for items near the checkout that parents don't want to waste money on. Frequently they give in, to stop the embarrassing wails. Complains one parent: "Even if you manage to avoid the toy section while shopping with your children, they still manage to see something that they will want and throw a fit over not getting before you manage to get them out of the store."
Promoting Christmas Items Before Thanksgiving
Truth be told, this complaint didn't come up all that often in our reader survey. But it's a good one. Most shoppers don't want to deal with Santa in November. We bet if we'd waited a few more weeks, this pet peeve might have topped the list. When it comes to Christmas promotions, urges one shopper, "Let's get back to a reasonable time frame."
Readers provided us with lots of annoying tactics to choose from for this feature. So, thanks to our many contributors. And, given the state of the economy, we bet retailers are busy coming up with more annoying sales tactics. Look out for our next similar feature.
Retailers' 15 Most Annoying Habits: Readers Speak Out