10 Ways Supermarkets Trick You into Spending

Supermarkets have long been playing sneaky marketing tricks on their customers. How many of us have actually managed to pull off a “quick stop” at a supermarket for some essentials without overspending? Every time we swing by for some milk, bread and bananas we’re whisked into a world of foods we don’t actually need – and before we know it we’re walking out with receipt that says $50 and a bag full of random purchases.

Whether you walk in with a strict shopping list or not, the supermarket has powerful and proven marketing techniques that encourage their consumers to spend more than they intended. There’s no such thing as an accident; it’s all designed strategically to get the most money out of you. They’ve thought of everything from the heavenly smells wafting out of the bakery to the “incredible” deals at the ends of aisles, to the free samples of exciting new products.

In 2012, a Gallup poll showed that Americans spent $151 per week on food (per household). However, the Food Marketing Institute and the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute have found that about 60% of what people buy in supermarkets wasn’t on their list in the first place.  Find out 10 of the most common tricks supermarkets use to entice us into spending more every time we’re in store. Once you know what to look out for, you can simply turn a blind eye, walk past that “2-for-1” deal that seems so great, and save that extra $50 for something you really do need.

10 Price Tags – Missing the Dollar Sign

Ever noticed that sometimes prices in supermarkets resemble “3.99” instead of “$3.99”? That’s a deliberate trick, because research shows our brain thinks something is cheaper when there’s no dollar sign added to the price tag. The lack of the dollar sign means we don’t immediately think of spending money; we don’t make the connection in our minds in the same way. Researchers at Cornell University tested the theory at a café, and found that customers spent more when there were no dollar signs listed in the menu. Supermarkets all around the world are getting in on this marketing tactic. It works in the same way as the use of “$0.99” instead of “$1.00” – our logical brains get tricked into thinking it’s cheaper even though it’s just one cent less.

9 Fruit & Vegetables – Always Shiny and Stacked

It’s not surprising that humans are most attracted to shiny products. Whether it’s a shiny new car, shiny hair or a shiny diamond, we’re accustomed to equating shininess with quality and desire. Supermarkets are in on this psychological trick and that’s the main reason they spray mist on their fruit and vegetables regularly. It is known to actually rot the produce faster, but it makes the produce look better and ups the conversion rate. On top of the mist, you’ll notice that the produce is always perfectly and prettily stacked, and that the section is one of the brightest in the whole store. It is lit in an almost theatrical way, making it look much more exciting than it is.

8 Store Layout – The Path You Take

You may not realize it, but the supermarket clearly dictates the path you should follow through the store. The path that’s chosen for you is, of course, the path that’s more advantageous for the store’s owners. For example, shoppers subconsciously feel the need to go up and down the aisles because it feels like the easiest way to navigate the store. People rarely skip aisles even if they don’t need something from that aisle. Also, shoppers are known to push the cart with their left hand, and grab stuff with their right hand, and to move in a counter clockwise direction. That means you’ll find the products you want – not the products you need – on the right hand side where it’s easier for you to just grab it and throw it in the cart without thinking.

7 Shopping Carts – Tripled in Size

Shopping carts have been a big part of trips to the supermarket since their invention in 1938. They have become so commonplace that shoppers tend to grab one on the way inside without thinking. Designed to help shoppers carry their items around the store, they’re bigger than ever these days – about three times what they were in 1938. That means they are probably far bigger than what an average family would need (unless you’re on a bulk shopping expedition at Costco) and they make you think you haven’t bought a lot even if it’s just half full. Research by marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom found that when the shopping cart doubled in size, customers spent on average 40% more. For those savvy shoppers looking to minimize unnecessary purchases, start by switching from a cart to a hand-held basket or, if you’re just heading inside to grab a couple of essentials, simply carry what you need in your arms.

6 Long Lines – Keeping You There Longer

Even at peak grocery shopping times, you’ll notice that a lot of the checkouts are unmanned, meaning you could be in for a pretty long wait. Again, that’s a deliberate trick aimed at making you buy more than you originally intended. You may have just ran in for milk and bread, but after waiting for 10 minutes to pay, you might have grabbed a gossip mag, packet of chewing gum and that Mars bar you’ve been eyeing up. All the items that line the checkout aisles are the ones with high markup – the ones that are the most profitable for the stores. Beware of those expensive DVDs, CDs, soda drinks, candy and magazines staring at you when you wait and stick to your guns.

5 Dairy Products – Always At the Rear

Have you noticed that even if you just need milk, you have the trawl through the whole supermarket to find it? That’s another trick supermarkets use to get us to spend more. In fact, milk is the number one item that Americans look for when they do the groceries and supermarkets know it. Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of Envirosell research firm, told the Chicago Tribune that dairy products have one of the highest conversion rates in the supermarket because if you came to look for milk, you’re highly likely to end up making the purchase. He went on to say that supermarkets will encourage you to walk past products that are harder to sell on your way to the milk section. You’ll see products that you had no intention of buying until you saw them on the shelves, right at eye level. If all you came in for is milk, it’s near impossible to not make an impulse purchase along the way.  Keep that head down (or perhaps visit a 7/11?).

4 Product Placement – What’s At Eye Level

The most expensive products are always found directly at eye level. Supermarkets make it as easy as possible for you to buy these products, which tend to have the highest markup. You’ll find yourself having to look down to ground level or right up top to find the home brands and cheaper products. There’s one exception to this: the breakfast cereal aisle puts the sugary cereals at eye level for children – so they can bug you until you buy it for them! The Grocer in the United Kingdom recently reported that supermarket giant Tesco is asking product suppliers to pay extra for “premium” product placement on the shelves, with the price of eye-level placement being twice what it is for the lower or higher shelves.

3 Ends of Aisles – Deals That Aren’t Deals

No matter what product is featured at the end of an aisle in your local supermarket, it always appears to be on sale. We’ll see a big yellow price sign on it and the fact it’s located on prime real estate makes it seem like it’s a deal we need to get in on. However, these items are often not on sale at all, and the price on the sign is just the regular price. What’s more, the items that appear at the end of aisles are usually the products with the highest markup – the ones that supermarket owners make the most from. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Department of Health found that sales of soda drinks (like Coca Cola) increased by 52% when placed at the end of aisles and alcohol sales increased 46% when placed at the end of aisles. As a result, some critics are proposing that banning certain products from being placed at the aisle end could help reduce obesity.

2 Entrance Way – Happy and Colorful

From the moment you step inside a supermarket, you’re always hit by bright, bold displays and products in the entrance way. Straight away, your senses go into overdrive as you walk past the florist section filled with color, the produce section where everything’s shiny and stacked to perfection, and possibly the aromas of the bakery too. This grand entrance is proven to increase your dopamine levels (and possibly your hunger levels too) – make you instantly more likely to make an impulse purchase before you’ve even got your shopping list out of your pocket. To avoid this marketing ploy, keep that head down and focused on the list and bypass that big bunch of flowers you’d love to buy for yourself.

1 Free Samples – A Psychological Trick

We’ve all been there: walked past a stall conveniently located at the supermarket, offering you the chance to try something delicious without paying a cent. These freebies make shoppers excited and make them feel like they are getting in on something exclusive. However, research shows that the biggest step in convincing a consumer to buy your product is to get them to try it first. Once they’ve had a free sample, and enjoyed it, they are far more likely to add it to their cart. The Street talks about how major food companies like Kraft or General Mills would spend a couple of hundred dollars to set up a stall in a supermarket, which is nothing when you consider their multi-million dollar advertising budgets. There is also the age-old psychology of wanting to “return the favor”. When someone gives you a little gift, you’re more likely to want to do something in return – in this case, buying the product you just tried for free.


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