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3 Ways to Buy Less Stuff You Don't Need

3 Ways to Buy Less Stuff You Don't Need

Online retailers are stealing techniques from casinos so you’ll buy more. These three evidence-based techniques can help you buy less.


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I recently traveled to Los Angeles to appear on The Minimalists podcast.

You might recognize them for their Netflix series. In short: They’re three guys who help people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less stuff.

It was a fun episode because their format differs from most other podcast formats. They select call-in questions from their audience, and the hosts and guest answer the questions. We touched on:

  • How to start from scratch after losing everything.
  • Why we suck at being bored—but why boredom can be the ultimate life hack.
  • How to find a work-life balance with a packed, changing schedule.
  • And more …

Here’s a video of the show if you’d like to watch it:

Which brings us to today’s post …

My time on the podcast got me thinking about consumerism today.

If you read Scarcity Brain, you know the slot machine is an apt metaphor for the modern world.

Industries are stealing techniques the casino industry developed in the 1980s to get us to consume more of everything. These techniques are especially powerful when it comes to possessions.

Which leads to today’s topic. You’ll learn:

  • How online retailers use techniques from the gambling industry to get us to buy more stuff we don’t need.
  • Why gambling techniques lead us to buy more.
  • The numbers behind how powerful these techniques are.
  • A brief history of why we buy so much.
  • Three science-backed ways you can buy less stuff you don’t need.

Let’s roll …

The sucker’s bet

In short

The Big Wheel game is the worst bet in Las Vegas (and just wait until you see where it’s now being used).

The details

The Big Wheel game is often one of the first things you’ll see when you enter the gaming floor of a glitzy casino in my hometown of Las Vegas.

The game looks like this:

So it’s a giant, vertical, Wheel-of-Fortune-like wheel. Its slots are stamped with numbers ranging from one to fifty.

The game is simple:

  • If the wheel stops on the number you wagered on, your bet is multiplied by that number.
  • Bet a buck on the 50? You’ll win $50 if the wheel lands on 50.

The game is like a magnet pulling in naive tourists. “Once you see that giant spinning wheel, you know exactly what you need to do to win,” the gambling game designer, Daniel Sahl, PhD, told me.

But the game is a sucker’s bet.

Las Vegas wasn’t built on winners, and the Big Wheel is one of the town’s best bricklayers. The house edge starts at 11 percent. Compare that to half a percent for blackjack or three percent for roulette.

Shopping’s gambling turn

In short

Online retailers are stealing the Big Wheel and other casino secrets to get you to buy more stuff.

The details

I’ve been thinking about Big Wheel and feeling like a naive Las Vegas tourist as I shop the internet this holiday season.

Shopping is taking a gambling turn—manipulating us into buying even more stuff.

Here’s how it works:

  • When we log onto some of our favorite online retailers or receive their marketing emails, we’re transported to a virtual casino.
  • A pop-up greets us with a pixelated Big Wheel: A giant, spinning wheel. But instead of dealing in cash, it deals in, well, deals.
  • The slots on the wheel offer all sorts of possible bargains: 10 percent off, 20 percent off, 30, free shipping, a free bonus gift, and more.
  • We, of course, know exactly what we need to do to win: click SPIN.

As that wheel spins, we’re sucked into a vortex of suspense, wondering just how good of a deal we might score.

When the wheel lands, we’re more likely to use our “jackpot” discount to buy an item. This casino-ification of online shopping is pushing us into even more stuff.

Research from Deloitte found that casino-like advertisements increase customer engagement by 40 percent. The method can yield a six-fold conversion rate.

And it doesn’t stop at bargain wheels. Advertising analysts at Ad Week recently reported that more digital advertisers are using casino-like features to drive engagement and purchases.

For example, the site Temu—which offers shoppers deals on products direct from factories in China—is like walking through a casino.

Flashing lights and frantic energy all propel the shopper into casino-like games that offer even greater bargains and free bonus products for clicking buy. In the Vegas casinos, the heaviest gamblers get free tickets to the buffet. On Temu, they get a free stuff.

So it’s no wonder holiday shopping is up this season—as it has been every year since we invented the internet. Holiday purchases are projected to grow between 7 and 9 percent this season, accounting for about $279 billion.

The average American home has anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 items. There are now more self-storage facilities in the US than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Starbucks, and Walmarts—combined.

Why gambling techniques work

In short

They leverage the scarcity loop, an ancient, three-part behavior loop that captures human attention and often leads us into decisions we later regret.

The details

Gambling has always led humans to spend their resources irrationally. It “works'' on an elegant behavior loop I call the Scarcity Loop.

There are few things better at capturing human attention and leading us to quickly repeat behaviors and make impulsive decisions that can be fun and engaging in the short term but detrimental in the long run.

The scarcity loop is a sort of serial killer of moderation. And it has three parts.

  1. Opportunity: We have an opportunity to get something of value. It could be money, as in playing a slot machine, or an item at a discount, as in online shopping.
  2. Unpredictable Rewards: We know we’ll get that valuable thing at some point, but we don’t know when and we don’t know how valuable it’ll be. On a slot machine, any given play could lead to nothing or to a life-changing amount of money. With online shopping, we don’t know exactly what type of item we’ll find or bargain or bonus we’ll score.
  3. Quick Repeatability: We can quickly repeat the behavior. You can play slot machines or keep scrolling through possible purchases as long as you’d like.

A brief history of buying too much

In short

Buying too much crap rose in the 1930s and spread to the masses over time. The internet put consumer culture on steroids.

The details

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, we started getting more stuff for cheaper. This was a good thing overall. But it had some unintended consequences.

Psychiatrists first started noticing compulsive buying among the rich in the 1930s. But we no longer have to be rich to buy compulsively. The historian Jeannette Cooperman wrote, “only in the twentieth century did people begin engaging in the eccentric over-accumulation of random, not terribly valuable stuff.”

The gambling industry in the 1980s realized that speed—that quick repeatability—was a key to getting people to gamble more. For example, when casinos swapped the clunky handles on slot machines for spin buttons, the average gamer went from playing 400 games an hour to roughly 900.

And so it is with online shopping. We don’t have the barrier to entry of commuting to a store, walking its aisles, and searching for the right item anymore. The store is in our pocket, through a screen 24/7.

And now we have “jackpot discounts” we “win” by spinning a virtual wheel pushing us to buy even more faster.

So how do you get out? The science is rather clear on that question …

Three ways to buy less stuff you don’t need

In short

These three research-backed methods will help you buy less stuff you don’t need.

The details

These three techniques are, as it were, the stuff the casinos don’t want you to know. They’re validated by years of behavioral research (and common sense) to interrupt the scarcity loop of buying.