6 Sneaky Tricks Supermarkets Use to Get You to Buy More Stuff

Leave the kids at home — and definitely don't anybody touch that cheese sample.

You stop at the supermarket on your way home from work for a couple of staples on your list and vow to be in and out within 10 minutes. A half hour later, you stroll out with a cart overflowing with stuff you never expected to buy and may not even need. Before you hang your head in supermarket shame, know that most grocery stores are laser-focused on making sure you buy more than planned.

“Most businesses typically spend a lot of time trying to get new customers, but grocery stores don’t do that. Their marketing dollars are very, very weighted toward getting their regular customers to spend more,” says John Buckingham, Marketing Professor at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management. How do they do it? Here are six marketing moves, psychological strategies, and placement tricks supermarkets use to squeeze more money out of all of us.   

1.  Supersize Stores and Shopping Carts Are Meant to Supersize Your Bill

You think you’ve got everything you need and you’ve been in the store a while now, but you look down at your cart and think Is that really it?  “That's no accident. The more cavernous the shopping cart, the more you have to put in before you think it's full,” according to Ian Atkins, head of finance at FitSmallBusiness.com

Indeed, shopping carts have grown in size over the last several decades. “We hear dietitians... talk about this all the time. The larger your plate, the easier it is to serve portions that accommodate your plate and not your appetite. The same thing happens in the store. It's very easy to lose sight of your shopping list and focus on the shopping cart.” And it’s not just the carts that have grown. “Grocery stores are getting bigger,” says Buckingham. “They know from studies that people spend less time and buy less in crowded stores, so they want larger stores that end up being less crowded so that you’ll spend more time and buy more.”

2.  The Expensive Stuff Is There to Make Everything Else Look Cheaper

Supermarkets often keep their most expensive inventory at eye level and move more affordable options to the top and bottom shelves, but not necessarily to get rushed shoppers to pick the pricier product. “There's actually something far more clever happening. By placing their top-shelf [products] at eye level, the supermarket is actually establishing a price that your brain will use to judge all other prices for similar products, a bias that's commonly known as the 'anchoring effect,’” Atkins explains. So, while a $15 pasta sauce might seem wildly expensive, if it’s the first one you’re introduced to, it impacts how you perceive the pricing of the other jars nearby. “Suddenly, reaching a bit higher for a pasta sauce priced at $7.29 seems like a very reasonable luxury,” he says, “even though there's a $1.79 pasta sauce near the floor."

3.  Free Samples Have an Ulterior Motive

Both experts say that a store’s goal of putting out samples is not to get you to buy the latest and greatest cheddar cheese on the market. First, there’s a psychological component: “It’s more about triggering thoughts of hunger and thinking about appetite and get you to fill your cart up,” says Atkins. Second, it’s a stall tactic. “It’s about maximizing more time in the store,” adds Buckingham. “Now you’re lingering and it’s becoming more of an experience. All the data shows that the longer people are in the store — even by minutes — the more their checkout ticket is.”

4.  Special Displays Make You Forget About Comparison Shopping

You know those seasonal displays you see on end caps (the areas at the end of an aisle that face outwards) often focused on an event or a holiday? There might be everything required to make stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce around Thanksgiving; all the ingredients you need to bake sugar cookies around Christmas; or barbecue staples in the summer. The supermarkets aren’t putting those components near each other as a favor. “A cookout display might have the hot dog buns, ketchup, mustard, and charcoal. It’s all there so you’re going to throw it all in the cart... not go around and do a side-by-side comparison of these items,” Atkins says. “It creates a convenience factor so you’re less likely to look at prices carefully.”

And those end caps — especially near aisles full of family staples like peanut butter, juice, and cereal — also often target kids. “The overall strategy is to put the everyday items that you need in the middle of the store so you have to walk by [these displays],” says Buckingham. “Everything is about buying more and buying at a higher price. The end caps may have things like candy and snacks foods and chips along with all the dips that go with them, things that kids want.” And speaking of your pint-size shopping companions...

5.  Grocery Stores Know That Bringing Your Kids Along Will Make You Spend More

Buckingham points to studies that show shoppers spend about 30 percent more when they’ve got kids in tow. “The data analytics now are so sophisticated that the individual stores know when the busiest times for families are and they organize merchandise and aisles to capitalize on times when families go,” he adds. And while you may have the discipline to ignore all the tempting candy for yourself, it’s a different situation after you’ve been wrangling little ones for the last hour. And that’s why the stores give your kids one last shot at getting you to say yes to a final chocolate bar request. “By the time you end up at the checkout counter, you’re tired and fatigued and your resistance is low. So, as a mom or a dad you say, “OK fine.’”

6.  They Mix Things Up Frequently

Don’t you hate it when you go to the exact spot in the store where your favorite fill-in-the-blank is and it’s not where it’s supposed to be? Supermarkets don’t. “They do all that on purpose. They want to change your routes to make you confused and make you spend more time looking, which makes you buy more” according to Buckingham. It’s an especially important tactic to use on male shoppers, who have a knack for making a beeline for the few items they came for and then walk out the same way they came in. “They know that men are coming in for one thing,” he says, “so they want to get them to walk by more things to choose from or to make them remember they need to buy something else.” 

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