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The 'Target Effect:' A psychologist explains why you can't just buy one thing

Here's how to stage your own personal Target intervention.
Image: Shopping carts sit in front of a Target store
Spending more time at Target translates to spending more money — and buying things we didn't intend to.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images, file

We're all familiar with that thing that happens at Target — the one where you walk in to buy dog biscuits and shampoo and push a cart with more than a hundred dollars' worth of stuff out the door an hour later. It even has a name and an Urban Dictionary entry; it's the Target Effect.

It's something many of us joke about, but this unintended overspending can wreak havoc on a family's finances and lead to money stress. If it's a problem, what's to be done? Avoid Target altogether? It's my favorite store to shop for household items so I didn't want to give it up, but repeated hundred — and even two hundred dollar trips — I hadn't budgeted for left me planning to stick with online shopping where I'd be less tempted by the latest must-have thing from Hearth & Hand with Magnolia or that good-smelling candle.

But I wondered if it was possible to overcome the Target Effect with less drastic measures. To find out I talked with Louisville-based licensed clinical psychologist Kevin Chapman, who specializes in anxiety and related disorders. And yes, according to Chapman, it can be done. He shared his Target intervention tips with NBC News BETTER.

A Happy Shopper is a Spending Shopper

First, we have to understand how this effect works: in short, it just feels good to be in Target. “The lighting, the bright colors … it brightens your affect and you tend to have a pretty good time so it's conducive to buying,” Chapman said. Of course being able to stop at Starbucks for a vanilla crème cold brew can also induce us to spend more time, he said. Spending more time translates to spending more money — and buying things we didn't intend to.

Target is also very clever at placing things in strategic places to boost cross-selling, and many stores now are rolling out lifestyle settings that help shoppers visualize the goods in their own home. Meanwhile they're employing “psychological pricing,” Chapman said. “They give you the impression that you're getting a deal.” It's a dead simple trick, but one we fall prey to. “Because it has a 9 on the end of it it appears to be on sale,” he said, “so how could you pass it up?”

But we can't blame it all on the retailer. To understand how some of us are affected by Target's sales-boosting techniques we should look at why others aren't, Chapman said.

The Target Effect as a Symptom

“People who aren't affected, I would consider to be much more emotionally regulated,” he said. “They're not engaging in retail therapy — which is just code for shopping as an emotional behavior to provide relief from strong emotions.”

“Many people just have a hard time dealing with certain emotional experiences, say anxiety,” he went on. So they “try to do things to feel better. Retail therapy makes them feel better temporarily but the problem is it contributes to more negative consequences.” Despite that, he said, “since we're creatures of habits, 'the next time I'm triggered I do what worked before, but it backfires and I feel like garbage.'”

So the Target Effect is less its own thing, he said, than a symptom of a different problem.

Tools to rein your worst tendencies

Still, though, there are tools shoppers can use to prevent overbuying. “One strategy is to have a strict budget and to know 'this is what I have every month,'” he said. “That's not particularly sexy but stating that is important. Frugal and financially consciousness people ... create a budget and don't engage in impulsive buying.'” I learned that myself during a period of unemployment in our household. When there was literally no money available to overspend we just didn't.

But what if you are less disciplined and/or aren't as financially limited? “The only way to not succumb [to the Target Effect] is to reprogram your mentality about even going,” Chapman said.

“One thing I would encourage people to think about is the idea of not — quote unquote — window shopping. Window shopping is a misnomer, so why are you wandering around Target if you don't need to be there? This will decrease impulsive buying tendencies. If I don't need to shop and it's not in my budget simply don't go to Target.” Well, there's that. But what about once we're there, and we need a few household things?

Give yourself a pep talk before heading in

“People who are emotionally regulated who won't fall victim, they're choosing their thoughts and appraisals beforehand, kind of like pep talking,” Chapman said.

We can all use these thoughts, he said. “For instance, say I know I have a problem with Target Effect. Before I go I have to be diligent enough to say I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid today.

I have to strategically pick certain thoughts before I even get in my car that are conducive to only buying what I want to buy.” Key to these thoughts are that they're short and easily memorizable, and realistic, he said.

“One example of a thought to be would be 'I only need detergent,'” Chapman said. “The reason that thought is important is the word need based on my budget, the only thing I need to purchase and the only reason I need to go is to purchase this product. [If I] rehearse that, my behavior is guided to the laundry aisle, [I] look at nothing else, and checkout.”

Wait, really? Just repeat to yourself you only need detergent? Yes, Chapman said. Say, “I budgeted for dog food so I put on a thought like 'I only need dog food.' That dictates I can only buy dog food so if I buy anything else I'm violating my code.'”

Ok, but it's very easy to see this thought turning into 'Yes I only need dog food, BUT...' Right?

But I see this cute rug on sale, or wouldn't it be nice to have this yummy smelling hand soap?

Need more backup? Ask yourself these questions

In this case, Chapman said, “Use disputing questions.” These are “all-purpose questions that force you to challenge [those] thoughts. Before I go I need to practice that dialog. I'm only going for dog food but I find this other item conveniently nearby would make me feel better.

What's the evidence that I need that [item], that it would make me feel good? You have to base it on evidence that I need that item. Are you 100 percent sure you need to buy it? No, you want it. What's another perspective? 'I would regret it.'” But for this to work, he said, “you have to practice it before you go.”

If you think it will take more than repeating some thoughts to combat your Target Effect behavior, there's another level, Chapman said. Drawing up on his experience with people with anxiety, he recommends exposure therapy.

“Go into Target practicing those mantras, and having a companion with [you], going in with the intention of that one item you choose in advance, purchase the item, flee the store, and after the fact, process how you feel emotionally after. If you didn't buy the Poo-Pourri, did the sky fall?”

Now “Ask 'what did I learn?'” he said. “You learn 'I can go to Target and buy one thing.' That forms a new association in your brain that tell you can buy one thing at Target.”

Now that association can't be rewritten overnight, he said; it can take some practice. But he's so confident, “I would straight up take someone who tells me they are a victim of the Target Effect and take them in and show them,” he said.

Looks like I know who to call next time I just need detergent.


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