Supermarkets want us to get the best deals and save lots of money. They only want what’s best for us, right?
Although they can give us what seem like great discounts from time to time, they are still big businesses and their top priority is to get us to spend as much as possible using sneaky psychological tricks.
Environmental psychologist, Paco Underhill, in their book “What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping”, claims that up to 50% of our shopping cart are things we never intended to buy in the first place! We’ve all been there. We only go to the supermarket for milk and bread but come out with enough to feed a small family for a week.
How does this happen?
Well, grocery stores use tricks to make us spend as much of our hard earned cash as possible. There are plenty of studies and websites that list these dirty schemes, although knowing what methods supermarkets use is only half the battle. Being able to beat them is key to winning the war on our wages.
We’ll tell you about some of your supermarket’s meanest tricks, and we’ll also give you direct advice about how to fight them and how to save money when doing your groceries.
Trick #1: Taking it Slow
We all love music, right? Well, grocery stores love it too.
Ever wondered why many supermarkets play easy listening or classical music? That’s because they want to:
- Slow your pulse down
- Relax you
- Make you shop slower
Why? Because shopping slower makes you spend more.
Don’t believe us?
Professor Ronald E. Milliman’s study “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers” found grocery stores that played slow music increased their sales by nearly 40%!
How does that work?
Apart from making us see more of the products and offers making it more likely for us to buy them, a study by Bangor University found some shocking results into what happens to our brains when we spend too much time in supermarkets. They found that:
- At around 23 minutes shoppers make choices with the emotional part of their brain instead of the logical
- After 40 minutes (the average time of a weekly shop) the brain stops making rational thoughts altogether
This proves that the longer you stay in a grocery store the more impulse buys and unnecessary purchases you make.
But music isn’t the only trick! Ever wondered why there are rarely any windows in grocery stores? When was the last time you saw a clock in one? All of these tricks are deliberately designed to make you lose track of time, take longer to do your shopping, and spend more of your money.
Solution: Get Your Grocery Groove On
The quicker you are at shopping, the cheaper it will be for you. So why not put on some headphones and listen to your favorite upbeat playlist? This will help you keep your heartrate up, meaning you’ll focus more and move quicker around the store.
Trick #2: Not So Special Offers
You spot a large colorful sign or sticker with lots of big letters and even bigger numbers on it. It’s unmistakably an offer: buy, buy, buy!
Sometimes these offers aren’t always the best deals. Similar products at full price are still cheaper than what’s on offer; those tantalizing signs and stickers are there to dupe us into thinking that this particular offer is the best. Even those nice big displays at the end of aisles aren’t always items on offer. They’re at full price but they’re made to look like they’re on offer!
Shockingly, research done by Which?, a UK consumer association, found that most offers made little to no savings whatsoever, and 10% of multibuy offers in British supermarkets were actually more expensive than if bought singularly or when not on offer.
How do grocery stores get away with this? Well, it’s easy when 37% of customers automatically assume that multibuys are cheaper and therefore don’t check the price per unit. When you remember that you stop making logical choices after 23 minutes, you can see how easy it is to be fooled by these offers.
Solution: Ask Yourself Do You Really Need That Many?
Multibuy offers make us think that it’s cheaper to buy them as a group rather than as individuals. But whilst you might save money per item, you’re still actually spending more, buying 3 when you’d otherwise just buy 1.
Sometimes these offers exist simply to make you buy more than you need or intend. The New York Times found that we are more likely to buy more of an item if there’s a higher quantity involved in the offer. Trials saw shoppers in different stores offered the same items at the same price, but under different “deals”:
- 10 for $10
- 5 for $5
- 1 for $1
They’re all the same cost per item, so there should be no clear winner, right?
Astonishingly, the offer of “10 for $10” was the most popular, whilst “1 for $1” was the least popular, showing people are prepared to buy 10x more than they need because of how the deal is presented!
We know what you’re thinking, though: “If I buy more today, I won’t have to buy as many next time.” Well, you’d be surprised. You’re more likely to use the items you bought rather than save them for later. This means you’ll probably have to buy them again when you next do your groceries.
Speaking in the Reader’s Digest, Jeff Weidauer, former supermarket executive and vice president of marketing at Vestcom, said:
“If you used to buy a 6-pack of soda and drink 6 cans a week but now buy a 12-pack…you’re probably going to start drinking 12 cans a week. Be mindful when buying larger sizes to make sure your habits don’t change as a result.”
So, if you really think that you will not use the extra items before your next shopping trip, then you can make the decision to get the offer. If not: put the offer down, back away, and just buy the amount you intended to.
Solution: Use A Calculator Instead of Your Brain
Your brain gets tired when shopping, so even if you’re pretty confident about your mental sums, you’re probably not going to be out your sum-processing best. So give your brain a rest and use a calculator to work out if those deals are really as cheap as they claim to be, especially compared to similar products at full price.
You don’t even have to bring a physical calculator. Almost all smartphones have a basic one inbuilt which is perfect for the simple sums and divisions that you’ll need to do around the grocery store. You can even download a calculator app. If you do download one, we recommend one with a widget so you can do the math directly on your home screen.
Solution: Use a Shopping List App With a Price Function
Some shopping list apps, like Listonic, have a function where you can add prices to items, and can even multiply the unit price by desired quantity so you can see a total for each set. This means that when you’re shopping, you can see the maximum or desired amount you want to spend on those items. One glance at your shopping list and you can see if the offer is saving you money or costing you more than your budget.
Trick #3: Keeping it on the (Eye) Level
You have lovely eyes. Supermarkets thinks so, too.
Your eyes are what you shop with, and these aren’t spared from grocery stores’ tricks. Eye-level is where the items supermarkets want you to buy the most are located. These aren’t necessarily the most expensive items: they’re the ones that generate the most profit for the grocery store. The cheapest items are often placed on the bottom shelves, or “stoop level”. They’re placed here because it’s more effort to look down and even more uncomfortable to bend down to pick the product up.
The area in between eye-level and “stoop level” is the eye-level of children, and they’re not safe from supermarkets wanting to increase their sales either! Brightly colored and appealing items are placed in this area so children spot them and ask their parents to buy these for them. But watch out, these are often unhealthy treats.
Solution: Take a Good Look Around
Always have a good look around the entire shelf for the items you need, even if it means stooping a little. Looking only around eye-level will mean you’re seeing only what the supermarkets want you to buy the most, which isn’t necessarily the best or cheapest for you.
As for items targeting children at their eye-level, don’t bring them shopping if that’s possible. Leave them with a friend or family member whilst you shop. However, if you have to bring them with you, you’ll just have to try your hardest to resist your little one’s adorable pleading looks and hope they won’t throw a tantrum when you say, “no”!
Trick #4: Hunger Games
It’s not just slowing us down and drawing attention to things at eye-level that are part of a grocery store’s arsenal of tricks. They also want to make you feel hungry.
Why? Because when you’re hungry you buy more. When you walk through the store you can smell that freshly baked bread, or that succulent rotisserie chicken. It’s fairly straight forward. If you’re hungry, you’ll buy more food: that seems perfectly logical.
But did you know…
…that being hungry also affects our general decision making ability?
Studies by the University of Southern California found that hunger affects our shopping decisions, even on non-food items. These studies showed that hungry shoppers not only buy unnecessary items on impulse, but also buy more of what they need. Professor Norbert Schwarz mentions that,
“…the desire to get food may more generally plant the idea of ‘getting stuff’ in your mind, which increases the likelihood that you’ll also be attracted to products that won’t satisfy your physical hunger…the internal message ‘I want food’ becomes simply ‘I want’.”
Solution: Don’t Shop Hungry
It’s a pretty simple solution: eat before you shop! If you can, plan to do your shop after a main meal. Larger supermarkets are open quite late these days so it’s possible to go shopping after your evening meal. But that’s easier said than done, especially if you’re someone who has a busy schedule and is pressed for time.
If you’re not be able to have a full meal before going shopping, eating a snack before going to the grocery store can make a difference: it’ll keep you full enough for your shop meaning you’re less likely to make hunger-based decisions.
If you are going to have a snack, eat an apple.
A study by Cornell University found that shoppers who ate an apple before shopping bought 25% more fruit and vegetables than those who ate a cookie! Similar results were also had with shoppers who had healthy snacks instead of sugary ones.
Trick #5: Sizable Shopping Carts
Have you felt like you’re shrinking when you go to the supermarket? Your shopping cart just gets bigger and bigger! Don’t worry! You’re not going crazy. Shopping carts are getting larger.
Why? Because it’s another supermarket trick.
The shopping cart, invented in 1938 by Sylvan Goldman in Oklahoma, USA, was invented so customers could move groceries around their store. Although they never caught on initially, they are now found in every supermarket around the world. As unthreatening as they may seem, they’re actually another tool to make you spend more money in grocery stores.
Marketing Consultant and author of Brandwashed, Andrew Lindstrom, ran an experiment where people were given shopping carts that were double the size of the usual. Those with the bigger shopping carts bought 40% more than those with the smaller! This is because your cart now looks emptier, meaning you’re more likely to fill it up with impulse buys and treats.
Solution: Use a Basket
If you think you can put all your shopping into a basket, use one! Baskets are also considerably larger these days (some are so big they even have wheels) so you can comfortably put a good amount of shopping into them. Because it looks fuller, you’ll be able to resist putting unnecessary items in them.
However, if you’re carrying a basket around the store though, be warned. A study appearing in the Journal of Marketing Research found that shoppers carrying a basket are more likely to fill it with unhealthy foods, as an unconscious “reward” for the workout your arms are getting.
Trick #6: Paying for Preparation
Cooking is hard work. Preparing fruit and vegetables can often be quite time consuming: all that peeling, chopping, slicing, and dicing. So you can’t be blamed for wanting to make the time spent cooking that little bit easier and quicker. That’s why supermarkets offer a whole range of fresh prepared food: simply because they want to make our lives easier, right?
…according to Consumer Research magazine they’re up to 5x more expensive than their unprepared equivalent weight.
What’s more, they’re not as healthy! Did you know that as soon as you cut fruit and vegetables they start to lose their nutrients, particularly vitamin C? They are most nutritious when just cut, so prepared fruit and vegetables are not as healthy as if you’ve cut them yourself.
So, these aren’t just costing you your money, they’re also costing you your health.
Solution: Give Prepared Food the Chop!
Simple: buy unprepared fruit and veg.
If you’re new to preparing vegetables, you can find plenty of handy guides on how to prepare food over at Wikihow. However, if you’re really struggling for time, or find preparing food difficult, we suggest buying frozen prepared food. Whilst these can still be around 50% more expensive than their fresh equivalent weight, studies show that they are no less nutritious than fresh fruit and vegetables.
Trick #7: An Ever-Changing Labyrinth
Last week the baked beans were in aisle 9. You’re sure of it. They were there for a good few weeks. But now, aisles 9 is full of tea and coffee, and baked beans are in aisle 7!
Why, oh why! Up until now you knew the grocery store layout like the back of your hand and could speed around it and get all your shopping done super quick. Do supermarkets do this on purpose?
Short answer: yes!
Long answer: Sure, there are some things that don’t change. Such as having flowers, fruit, and vegetables at the entrance of the store because all those bright colors and fresh looks put you in a good mood. This creates, “a pleasant oasis apart from the rest of your workaday”, says psychologist Melanie Greenberg, speaking in Shape magazine.
Then, there’s the milk, bread, eggs, and other staples at the far corner of the store so you have to walk across the entire length of the supermarket to get to them.
“Stores typically put these items in the farthest reaches of the store to expose customers to the maximum amount of product on their ‘quick trip’ so they will impulsively buy other things,” says Mike Tesler, president of Retail-Concepts.
But everything in between tends to move around every so often.
Why? Because by changing the layout of the store every so often you have to re-learn the layout which slows you down. It’s a risky move because it can lead to customer frustration and loss of sales. But when done right, it can increase sales.
According to Milpole Technologies, a product solutions company, the benefits are:
- Making customers spend more time in the store
- Making them notice new products whilst searching for where their desired products have moved to
- Present an opportunity to tidy-up and dust the store, keeping it looking clean and fresh
After a change in the store layout, you’re going to be slower doing your shopping for a couple of visits until you’ve become familiar with the changes. Then, they’ll do it again!
Solution: Use a Shopping List
Unfortunately, there’s little you can do to stop supermarkets changing the layout of the store every so often. So, the best way to tackle some of these more stubborn tricks is to shop using a shopping list. This will help you to keep focus on what you’re supposed to buy and stick to it.
Is there’s an offer on yogurt? Yes. Is yogurt on the shopping list? No. Then don’t buy it. See: easy!
In fact, a study in Italy confirmed that shoppers who do the most preparation before their shop, including using a shopping list, are less likely to buy items on impulse. So, no matter how dramatically the store layout has been changed you can stick to your list whilst wandering around this new unexplored territory filled with tempting offers.
Time to Take on the Grocery Stores and Win!
Who knew supermarkets are so sly and persuasive about making you spend money. And these are only 7 of the many ways they convince you to part with your cash.
But you’re now armed with the knowledge of how they do this, and several handy solutions:
- Listen to music whilst shopping
- Use a calculator
- Only buy the quantity you need, not what’s on offer
- Use a shopping list app with a price function
- Look around the entire shelf, not just at eye-level
- Don’t shop hungry
- Have a meal or a healthy snack before shopping
- Use a basket instead of a shopping cart
- Don’t buy prepared fruit and vegetables
- Use a shopping list
We really want to stress the importance of the final point: use a shopping list. Not only does it prevent you from buying those impulse deals by keeping you focused, it can also make your shop quicker, meaning less time for you to fall prey to supermarket psychology.
Digital shopping lists are a really great modern way to create and use a shopping list. Specifically, many will have a sharing function which means other people can view and even help build your shopping list. If you’re really struggling to resist those impulse buys, you can share your list and have someone else who is more resistant to these tricks do your shopping for you. At least, that can be your excuse!
There are other handy functions as well, such as Listonic’s ability to add prices to items and calculate total cost of multiple items (mentioned earlier) which will help you budget better. There are a whole gamut of other little lifesavers across a wide range of shopping list apps that we highly recommend you trying out.
But overall, be vigilant!
These psychological tricks are good for business. You may avoid many now, but you can be sure that grocery stores are looking at new ways to make you deviate from your shopping list by tempting and tricking you into spending!
Did any of these psychological tricks surprise you? Do you know of any other crafty ways supermarkets can get you to spend more money? Please let us know in the comments.