How many times have you stopped at the supermarket for milk or toilet paper, only to leave with a bag full of groceries? Chances are it’s happened more times than not, and we’re here to tell you that you’re not alone. Industry research reveals that some 55 percent of purchases made in the grocery store are unplanned. Basically, think of the supermarket not as a benevolent place offering sustenance, but more like a psychological obstacle course filled with traps to seduce you into buying more food than you need. Every part of a grocery store, from where items are placed to the music that is played, is designed to encourage shoppers to buy-buy-buy; for the consumer, that often translates to impulse purchases of poor nutritional quality, overspending and potential food waste.
Hitting the grocery store armed with some insight can help you avoid being sucked into the marketing abyss. Here’s what to look out for:
1. Strategic soundtracks
Supermarket music is an art of its own. Research shows that loud music encourages people to move through a store quickly, and stores don't want this. Meanwhile, slow music inspires people to slow down and spend more money, while classical music leads people to buy more expensive items.
2. A familiar flow
Most often, grocery stores are designed to be entered on the left and have a left-to-right traffic flow. The clockwise orientation feels natural for the 70 to 90 percent of the population who are right-handed; studies show that this type of traffic direction increases spending. It also encourages shoppers to weave in and out of the aisles.
If a supermarket sells flowers, they are generally first thing at the entrance, this serves several purposes. First, you’re more likely to buy a nonessential item like flowers before your cart is full, and second, flowers in the cart boost your mood. Happy shoppers spend more.
4. Tempting smells
Another near-the-entrance department is often the bakery and/or deli if things like chickens are being roasted. The savory smells get the appetite going and nothing fills the shopping cart more robustly than a hungry stomach.
5. The produce paradox
Produce sections at the start of the shopping route are there for a few reasons. The bright colors of fruit and vegetables boost the mood like flowers do. But also, research shows that if you lead with healthy products, you’re more likely to cave into junk food. As The New York Times notes, “the more “virtuous” products you have in your basket, the stronger your temptation to succumb to vice.”
6. Inconvenient travel
As opposed to a convenience store, the things most people need most frequently are set far apart. Milk will be in one corner, eggs in another, while other high-demand items like pasta will be in the middle somewhere. The idea is to get the shopper moving throughout the store (so that they may be more easily subjected to tricky marketing tactics, naturally).
7. Prime real estate
Healthy cereal and generic or less expensive items are generally placed high or low on shelves. The expensive premium products? Eye level and easiest to grab without stooping or reaching.
8. Prime real estate, kid-style
Children's sugary cereal is almost always placed within a kid's reach. (Photo: Rudd Center/YouTube)
The exception to the trick above is kid items. Brightly colored sugar-loaded cereal and macaroni and cheese emblazoned with cartoon characters will likely be shelved low – the Rudd Center says that nine out of 10 boxes of sugary children's cereal are placed on middle or bottom shelves, where your kids will see them and then attempt to shatter your spirit with incessant begging.
9. Suggestive coupling
The select salsa by the tortilla chips and fancy dip by the carrots are not there just for convenience. By placing premium items near their logical partners, shoppers often skip navigating to another part of the store where they might find better deals or cheaper options.
10. Funny math
It might seem that store managers didn’t do very well in math class. An offer of 10 items for $10 dollars, for example, may sound good. But when you do the math it often turns out that it actually offers no saving.
11. Slippery signage
Read sale offers on shelves carefully; a tempting offer for one item may be placed between that item and a more expensive counterpart (not on sale) sitting on the shelf right next to it.
12. Bulk brainwashing
We are taught to believe that buying in bulk ensures the best price, but that's not always the case, especially in the produce aisle. Peppers and avocados in bags, for instance, may be less expensive purchased individually.
13. The ever-expanding shopping cart
Larger shopping carts encourage shoppers to buy more than they need. (Photo: Caden Crawford/flickr)
Shopping carts are created to get as much as possible out of the store and into a car. And the bigger they are, the more people put in them. In one experiment, says marketing consultant and author Martin Lindstrom, shopping carts were doubled in size and customers bought 19 percent more stuff. That's why you may have noticed that shopping carts have gradually been increasing in size.
14. Off-loading obstacles
More than 60 percent of shoppers remove things from their shopping cart at the checkout line. Smart markets discourage this with the ever-narrowing checkout counter with little spare room to stash unwanted merchandise.
15. Eye candy
Candy is at the checkout where it gets the most attention as that's where shoppers stand still the longest. After being hammered by all the smells and colors and marketing gimmicks encountered during your shopping experience, succumbing to the impulse-purchase Snickers bar can be hard to resist. Who doesn't want a reward after surviving the gauntlet that is the supermarket?