The Reason You Can't Shop For "Just One Thing" at Target

What Is the Target Effect?
Ramin Talaie | Contributor
Ramin Talaie | Contributor

There's a reason you walk into Target needing toilet paper, but leave with some new gold hoop earrings, a half-off textured throw blanket, and a cutesy pink coffee mug instead. It's called the Target effect, and according to business strategist Nina Vargas, it's what happens when the simple shopping list you walked into the store with becomes nothing more than a suggestion.

"Target masters the idea of walking into the store with a list of wants and leaving with a bunch of items you 'need,'" Vargas says. Although it may be a stretch to say you "needed" an artificial olive leaf arrangement or a new swim top, these are purchases you thought you couldn't pass up, whether because the item was marked down on clearance or maybe because it was the last one in stock. Whatever the case, it's a perfect example of the sneaky Target effect.

Despite its name, this type of retail strategy isn't exclusive to Target. You may feel this same urge when you enter stores like Trader Joe's, Costco, Aldi, and many others. That's because these businesses know exactly how to not only keep customers in the store longer, but to entice them to buy more items than they originally came in for.

Below, Vargas explains the Target effect, why your bank account may often fall victim to it, and how you can avoid leaving the iconic retailer with a cart full of items (you know, if that's what you want).

Experts Featured in This Article

Nina Vargas is business strategist for beauty, fitness, and fashion brands.

What Is the Target Effect, and Why Is It Effective?

The Target effect is what happens when you walk into a store with the intention of only buying one or two items and leave with, well, more than one or two items. It's named the Target effect because the phenomenon is most likely to happen at a one-stop shop like Target, which offers a little bit of everything: apparel, accessories, household essentials, snacks, beauty items, home decor, and more.

But why is this retail strategy effective? Because the Target effect is created from "extremely clever, smart, and strategic retail strategies all mixed into one big store," Vargas says. "This includes appealing store layouts that give shoppers a flow to their shopping experience, strategic product placement throughout, and a diverse range of merchandise that prompts 'just looking' shopping behavior."

[T]hese businesses know exactly how to not only keep customers in the store longer, but to entice them to buy more items than they originally came in for.

Ever notice the household essentials are near the back of the store, for example? That's on purpose: the store strategically makes you walk past other store areas like women's clothing and decor in hopes that something will catch your eye before you reach the aisle you're actually looking for, Vargas says.

Another area that you'll pass on your way to the back of the store is the marked-off clearance items, and this could be the biggest culprit to your higher credit card bills. There, you may be more tempted to buy an item because you think you're saving money through a discount. "This justifies these purchases as future needs, gifts for someone who needs this, or exceptional bargains the consumer can't afford not to take advantage of," Vargas says.

Don't forget about the tempting "Bullseye's Playground" area either. This is the strategically placed space at the front of the store that houses the less-than-$5 seasonal items you love sprucing up your house with or buying for your kids. "They're not distractions, just treasure troves you absolutely must sift through," Vargas says. Once you commit to buying one thing off your list, no matter how cheap, you may be more tempted to buy more items off your list — something the Target retail specialists know and hope for.

Most of all, Target is a generally clean, bright, and enjoyable store to shop in. With a Starbucks placed in every Target, the retail specialists want to make shopping at Target an experience. The more time you spend in Target browsing the store with your matcha latte, the more money you may convince yourself to spend.

How Can You Avoid the Target Effect?

Sometimes the allure of Target is buying all the fun little items you don't need. But if your bank account is screaming, there are fortunately some solutions for you to avoid the Target effect.

For one, you can do all your shopping online. "This allows you to get those essentials on your list and not even have to step foot into the store," Vargas says. Target even offers a curbside pickup option where they bring the items out to your car.

You can also bring a set amount of money into the store with you, Vargas suggests. Leave your credit card at home so that you have to be conscious about what you're actually spending money on.

The last option: put some blinders on and hope you have enough willpower to walk past the beauty section on the way to the trash bags. If you fail, blame the Target effect.

Taylor Andrews is a Balance editor at POPSUGAR who specializes in topics relating to sex, relationships, dating, sexual health, mental health, and more. In her six years working in editorial, she's written about how semen is digested, why sex aftercare is the move, and how the overturn of Roe killed situationships.