5 Really Stupid Things Consumers Do Offline

Financial IQ

Customers do the dumbest things.

Last week, I dissected some of the outrageously mindless online behaviors. But that’s really nothing compared with what they do offline.

If you remember only one thing from this story, then please let it be this: Companies are counting on your stupidity to turn a profit.

The average purchaser spends just 11 minutes and 27 seconds in the store from start to finish. Impulse buys – those are purchases made without any apparent forethought – can account for a large percentage of a store’s profit.

Businesses don’t want us to be smart. They don’t want you to think. All the more reason to get smart.

Here are some of the mistakes customers make offline:

They Buy Without Thinking

The inevitability of a purchase is among the central theses of Philip Graves’ insightful 2010 book Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping. He claims that market research can’t accurately predict how you’ll act when you’re at the store, and that in many ways this is the big mystery of sales. But that hasn’t stopped companies from using everything from lighting to sales to lure you in. And it works – often without you even knowing it (or them knowing why).

How to prevent it: Be the person who knows what he or she wants before getting to the store. This will help you narrow choices, thereby eliminating a whole hill of confusion.

They Don’t Know Their Rights

Unfortunately, customers fail to do their basic due diligence, like reading the terms of their purchase, or asking the most basic product questions of the company (“Does this camera work in the water?”). They could have easily avoided these problems had they taken the consumer responsibility seriously. In most cases, they don’t even acknowledge their rights exist. So sad.

How to prevent it: Read the fine print. Review the warranty. Ask questions prior to your purchase. It’s that easy.

They Try to Resolve Their Problems Too Late

The best way to fight bad service is right now, in real time. Don’t wait to get home. Businesses expect you to put it off, so by the time you’ve written a letter or figured out what to say over the phone, you can bet the company has prepared an appropriate response. So why do folks wait? Maybe they don’t want to embarrass themselves, or  they don’t remember, or they can’t be bothered. No matter – it’s too late. You can bet the company will be happy to send you a form apology for whatever ails you, and it will most definitely not be enough to make you happy.

How to prevent it: Say something when you’re unhappy. If you wait, it could be too late.

They Act as if Businesses are Charities

One of the most common refrains you hear when talking with a company is how they’re “not a charity.” Duh. But it merits repeating: They’re not a charity. Customers who expect them to behave like a nonprofit org – bending a rule or offering a costly replacement – are often in for a rude surprise. Bear in mind, though, that whenever a corporate employee repeats those words, “We’re not a charity,” it’s an admission that their company is little more than a moneymaking machine with an overtly singular purpose of creating wealth for its bosses, owners and shareholders. Do you really want to be that company’s customer?

How to prevent it: Economics 101 isn’t required – just a little common sense. These companies aren’t usually your friend. For them, it’s all about the Benjamins.

They Think Shopping is a Sport

If this is all just a game to you, then you should know this: the deck is stacked. The dice are loaded. It’s not a question of if you’re going to lose, but how much. Being a good customer means accepting certain responsibilities (more on that in a future story) and for those that head over to the mall without any forethought, they are probably just setting themselves up for a fall. Maybe you think you’re the exception, with your bargain-hunting, extreme couponing savvy. But trust me, any business would love to have you as a customer, because you’re in it for all the wrong reasons. You’re shopping recreationally, which is a distant cousin to gambling.

How to prevent it: Be a customer for all the right reasons. If it’s a product you genuinely need and you’ve conducted your research, then by all means, go buy it. Say it with me: Shopping is not a sport.

Look, I’ve made every mistake in this story, even the last one. I still do. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I’m known to take my family to the mall to walk around and window-shop. (I’m the dad who always says, “No, you can’t buy that.”)

But just a few little tweaks to your buying behavior can prevent a purchase you will quickly regret.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.

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