San Francisco, CA

How San Francisco Tricks You Into Spending More Money

Jano le Roux

San Francisco is full of sneaky marketing tactics that have been brewed into our sales staff for generations. The city has seemingly perfected the art of persuasion — and it’s all so subtle. As a marketing specialist at Likeflare, a San Francisco-based marketing agency, I cannot help but notice how these slithery snake-oil marketing swindles are weaved into Frisco culture.

Whether shopping online or at a brick and mortar store, San Francisco is rigged like a slimy marketing minefield trying to separate you from your money. Today I’m leveling the playing field by helping you spot some of the smuttiest sales tricks I’ve seen in the city.

Are you wiser than the marketers? Let’s test you.

The Decoy Product

Although it's hard to remember the last time you’ve been there, today we’re going to the cinema! As you enter, the smell of fresh popcorn softly dismantles your consumer awareness by getting the salivation glands in your mouth ready for a party. There are so many landmines hiding ahead, but the party preparations in your mouth foxily distract you.

“Would you like a small, regular, or large popcorn,” the lady at the counter asks with a poker face. “What are the prices,” you ask with a slight suspicion in your voice.

“Small — $4.95, Regular — $7.10, Large — $7.95,” the lady replies without hesitation

A lot of people would pick the large one because the regular one is only 85 cents or 10.69% more than the regular popcorn, but what most consumers don’t realize is the gap between the small and large popcorn. There is a $3 difference, which still sounds small, but looking at the relationship, there is a 37.73% difference.

The regular size product is what we call a decoy product and it’s used to make you believe something is a better deal than it really is. If the option was given as only the small option and the large option, it would be simple to spot. With the regular option, the decision clearly becomes more difficult to make.

Now that you know the classic, let me show you the San Francisco version. Like many things in the world, San Francisco loves to revolutionize these tactics because people have gotten used to them. In Frisco, sales staff are taught to omit one of the options. You’d often hear: “And would you like a regular or large soda with that, sir?” Instead of asking if they have a smaller size, I see a lot of consumers ask for the price, and with the difference in cost being so minute — customers often pick the large-option without even realizing that the waitress tactically omitted the small-option.

"Just Pay Shipping" Shenanigan

This is a popular option with San Francisco-based online skincare brands. It goes something in the line of: “Just pay shipping and your first month is on us.” When you reach the checkout page, the delivery fee is usually around $6.95; after getting your name, address, email, contact number, and credit card details, the website now reveals some slimy state sales tax bringing the total to around $9.16.

What we often don’t realize as consumers, is that the cream usually costs not much more than $0.25 to make and package as most of these companies manufacture in bulk quantities. These companies almost always profit from these deals, no matter how little you’re paying. The shipping costs you see at most big retailers have no relationship with the actual shipping price as most of them have personalized deals with shipping providers that bring down the price of shipping.

"The Special Of The Day"

This is an oily trick used in the restaurant and takeaway industry. Whether on your favorite food delivery app or at your local restaurant, I often see daily food specials — and there is a really good reason for that.

In California, restaurants are not allowed to sell food past its expiration date and may even lose their California Food Handler Licence if they’re caught doing so. All of this food cannot go to waste and this is where store managers mitigate the risk with a special you cannot refuse.

In the Bay Area, it often comes in the form of some “newly invented meal” seemingly on special at a very low price. These daily specials usually mean trouble! Something is starting to get bad and they need to get rid of it fast. Do not fall for this trick, unless you’re okay with eating spoiled or often rotten food.

The Baader-Meinhof Menuver

This is the phenomenon that you see something somewhere and unexpectedly you start seeing it everywhere. And retailers are using this to their benefit to separate you from your money. I often see it when startups are trying to pitch investors.

There are two things it boils down to. You first stumble across a new phrase, object, or concept. Then it keeps following you around and makes you think everyone is talking about it by using confirmation bias against you.

You hear about it once and then they start retargeting you on social media, the web, your friends, and even the billboard outside of your apartment.

To use this trick against you a company simply has to have your email address. Don’t share it so easily, unless you’re truly interested in the product.

The Salty Watermelon

A man sells watermelons at an outdoor market. He has a sign: “1 for $3, 3 for $10.” Everyone always tries to teach him how to do business, by telling him that buying three watermelons separately would cost only $9, but what they don’t realize is that everyone is buying three watermelons instead of one. Who really needs three watermelons?

Always be skeptical about bulk deals. Sure, sometimes there may be a saving, but that’s not the point. The real question you have to ask yourself is, do I really need three watermelons!


I’m sure it’s no secret to you that occasionally companies can do questionable things to make more profits. The objective here is to be mindful of these marketing tactics so that you are not taken advantage of.

These are just five of the hundreds of sneaky tactics we’ve seen in the city. Have you seen a sneaky tactic used against you recently in the Bay Area? Do tell!

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Los Angeles, CA

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