Grocery Stores Tricks and How to avoid them

Grocery stores are experts at marketing and consumer behaviour. Grocery shopping, start to finish, is a cunningly orchestrated process. Every feature of the store—from floor plan and shelf layout to lighting, music, and ladies in aprons offering free sausages on sticks—is designed to lure us in, keep us there, and seduce us into spending money.

They get you in the door, keep you inside as long as possible, and subtly trick you into spend more money than you planned.

A common feature of supermarkets is the one-way entry door; to get back out, you’re compelled to walk through a good portion of the store—with its tempting displays of buyables—to find an exit.

Here’s a few things grocery stores do to trick customers into spending more (and how to avoid them):

Fooled by Fresh Flowers

Have you ever noticed that most stores place fresh flowers right next to their store entrances? This creates an image of "fresh from the farm" delectability that sets a tone for a consumer's shopping experience. Would the shopping experience start on such a good note if cans of Spam, dog food, toilet cleaner, and light bulbs were the first things you saw?

Similarly the store bakery is usually near the entrance, with its scrumptious and pervasive smell of fresh-baked bread; as is the flower shop, with its buckets of tulips, bouquets of roses, and banks of greenery. The message we get right off the bat is that the store is a welcoming place, fresh, natural, fragrant, and healthy, with comforting shades of your own kitchen.

External Cues

A study from 1982 showed that customers in grocery stores that play background music spent 34% more time shopping and in turn spent more money than in stores that didn’t play background music.

You might also notice that stores usually have no windows or skylights and clocks can be difficult to find. This is because stores want shoppers to be focused on buying more items instead of aspects outside the store like the weather. Shoppers that are conscious of time are more likely to spend less time and money, so stores try their best to get shoppers focused on nothing but the items displayed in front of them.

If you’re wondering why stores want us to spend so much time inside - it’s because it’s been proven that after about 40 minutes of shopping, rational selection (following a budget) is no longer as effective. People start buying using their emotions. This means the more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to buy things based on a whim. With the massive overwhelming selection most grocery stores offer, you can see why emotions become such a large factor in purchasing after the 40 minute mark.

Product Placement

Placing staples like milk, cheese and eggs at the back of the store forces shoppers to walk through the store to get there. In the process they’ll be exposed to numerous other (often more profitable) products and are much more likely to both notice them and buy more items overall.

Displays at the end of each aisle are called “endcaps” and are used to highlight special promotions. Look carefully at the prices though because in most cases the items aren’t even on sale and the food companies have paid a premium to have their products situated there. What may look like a deal, really isn’t a deal at all.

Food companies face tough competition from each other to have their products placed on the best shelf locations. Most consumers look at or slightly below eye level when scanning shelves. These locations are considered high-value and food companies pay more to have their products there. Products geared towards children like cereals are usually at a lower level and are meant to grab their attention. The products at eye level are there to sell the most, but they aren’t necessarily the best deals available. The best deals are usually found below eye level or near the bottom and top of the shelves.

Premium Products

Another simple way grocery stores get shoppers to spend more money is by selective product placement.

Some stores will place expensive, premium items near the front of the store that are visible to all shoppers when they walk in. If you go in looking for a staple like cheese, the premium cheese items will be near the front and the regular cheese products will be in the back.

The store uses this so that shoppers will feel like buying the regular cheese is a better deal than the premium one. In this way, the premium displays aren’t even there to generate sales of that item – they drive sales for lower cost alternatives that still have high profit margins. This is called price anchoring. The high price of the premium product makes you less sensitive to the often overpriced regular product.

The cheaper alternatives may be lower priced but they aren’t necessarily a good deal. The easiest way to avoid overpaying is by comparing prices from store to store. Using flyers available online or even a price-scanning app will help shoppers determine whether the item they’re buying is actually at a good price or just a cheaper alternative to an expensive premium product.

Confusing Store Layouts

Many stores have layouts that can seem unnecessarily confusing - this is another trick that grocery stores use.

When shoppers go into a store looking to buy a few specific items, they end up walking through the entire store looking for those items if the layout is confusing. They’ll be exposed to more products, spend more time in store, and likely spend more money.

The aisles are unmarked on purpose so shoppers have more time to wander the aisles (and spend more money). And have you noticed that the staff who are able give customers directions if asked can be hard to find? The more time a customer spends looking for an item the more likely they are to buy other items.

The best way to prevent wandering the aisles and temptation to buy things you may not want or need is to simply have a list and stick to it. If you only buy what’s on your list, you won’t be tempted by other products you come across no matter how lost you get inside the store.

Product Scarcity

Grocery stores also use the idea of scarcity to increase sales. Scarcity is the idea that a sale only lasts for a limited time so shoppers should take advantage of it now to avoid missing out on the deals.

An example of this is when a grocery store puts an item on sale with a limited number of items each customer can buy. For example, if cereal is on sale, they might limit the sale to 2 boxes per customer.

This automatically gives off the impression the deal is so good that people will be coming in and buying multiple boxes. In reality, the deal usually isn’t that good but introducing scarcity is another way to make it seem like it’s a great deal. The easiest way to confirm is to use a price-scanning app that allows you to compare prices.

Cart Size

For the past 30 years shopping cart sizes have slowly increased. One marketing expert found that if stores doubled the size of grocery carts their sales increased by 40%.

People see the empty space in their shopping carts and automatically feel the need to fill it. The logic is that people have taken the time and effort to come to the store and leaving with nothing (or very little) would not be a productive use of time. So when shoppers see empty space in their shopping cart they try to fill it and end up spending more than they planned.

So what to do about all this?

Make a list and stick to it, seems to be the best advice. Try not to shop so often—fewer and more efficient trips to the store are easier on the pocketbook—and don’t shop when you’re hungry.