The secret to shopping at Target—and only buying what you need

The Target effect is too real, but there's an easy way to avoid it.

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Have you ever gone to Target (or Walmart or any big box store, really), list in hand, and walked out with exactly what you needed? I’m willing to bet you can count on one hand the times that’s actually happened. And all those other trips, where you pick up a soda or a snack at the register, or snag Starbucks from their kiosk, or can’t resist those $5 DVDs or some other impulse purchase—you are not alone.

This is what has affectionately become known as “the Target effect." And don't worry, there's actually an easy way to guarantee you won't buy more home decor you don't actually need or picking up a few extra bottles of shampoo, soap, and ibuprofen just to stock up.

What the heck is the ‘Target effect’?

Everyone's been talking about the Target effect lately, but really, this phenomenon has been around for longer than you realize. Stores like Target have long been designed to pull you in and convince you to buy.

Retailers spend millions, if not billions, of dollars every year studying consumer spending and shopping habits. They use this information to strategically design their stores from the overall layout to the displays to the endcaps to the stuff that tempts you at the register. It’s all designed to make you buy, buy, buy. And they wouldn’t do these things if it didn’t work.

Why do we all have this problem?

Basically, Target and other retailers lay out their stores in a way that fits how most people shop. Refinery29 recently spoke with Joe Perdew, Target’s Vice President of Store Design, and he shared a bit about how they create an environment that encourages overspending and impulse purchases.

“We know that some guests want to grab a coffee at Starbucks and explore the aisles, so we’ve added features like dynamic product vignettes throughout the store that help guests envision how things will fit into their lives,” Perdew told Refinery29.

Target Shopping Displays
Credit: Target

It's harder to resist buying when you can picture how things would look in your home.


Retailers will also do things like putting products you’d naturally buy together on the same shelves (think coffee pods by a Keurig display), using bright colors and good lighting to make people feel more at ease, and creating endcap and register displays touting sales or low-cost items.

What is the secret to buying only what you need?

This is so simple, you might roll your eyes. But if you’ve experienced the Target effect, maybe it’s worth trying at least once.

The secret? Bring cash! The key here is to only bring as much cash as you will need and no more. Leave the rest of your money, your credit cards, etc. in your car or at home. That way there is no actual way to give in to temptation.

If you only have enough cash to cover what you need, you literally can't buy anything else.

Planning ahead so you have an idea of how much you’ll need to spend can help on its own, for sure. But unless you have an iron will, you’re more likely to make exceptions for a small item here or there if you’re paying with a card.

How can you figure out how much cash to bring?

Even if you prefer to go to the store, online window-shopping is a great way to know what your bill will be at the register. Add everything you plan to buy to your cart and nothing more.

If you get hit with the Target effect and add non-list items to your cart, don’t fight it. Just go through and delete them when you’re done window shopping. This might even help you get the impulse buying out of your system before you shop for real.

Bonus! You can find out ahead of time if something you want isn’t available at your location. Target has a free ship-to-store option when you buy online, so you can even coordinate delivery to be the same day you’re planning to shop!

What other things can help you curb overspending?

If cash-only isn't ideal for how you shop, you can try a few of these other tactics to at least curb the Target effect:

  • Bring a trusted friend. They can at least try to stop you from adding unnecessary items to your list.
  • Don't get a shopping cart. If you only need a few things just grab a basket—better yet, just carry your items and avoid those strategically placed baskets throughout the store.
  • Gamify your shopping. Put a few bucks in a jar every time you make it out the door without overbuying and use that money for a guilt-free shopping spree or toward a big purchase or trip or whatever you want!
  • Buy everything online first and have it sent to the store. You can still get the shopping experience, skip the checkout line, and get only the things you needed.
  • Buy online* only and avoid the store altogether. This might be best reserved as an extreme option, and we'd still recommend having someone else nearby to make sure you don't add extras to your cart.
  • Admit defeat and budget for a few extras. Honestly, maybe the joy of finding a few unexpected items is worth the extra cost!
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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