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Supermarket Confidential: How Grocery Stores Psych Us Out

Every week I go into the grocery store armed with my checklist, on which I’ve listed the healthy, inexpensive ingredients I’ll need to make next week’s dinners. So how is it that I come out of the store with a cartload of random items, having spent more than twice my budget? I don’t remember needing that jar of artichokes and I’m pretty sure frozen pizzas weren’t on the list either.

Grocery store purveyors are highly skilled at using psychology to increase their sales. In fact, the goods are meticulously arranged and priced all for the sake of wringing every last dollar out of our wallets. No matter how hard we plan, supermarket layout can still trick us into buying more than we need and spending more than we can afford.

Sensory Overload
When you walk into your supermarket, chances are that the first department you encounter will be either the bakery, flower shop, or something equally aromatic. As nice as it feels to be awash in the scent of fresh-baked bread, blooming roses, or sizzling rotisserie chickens, grocery stores count on those tantalizing smells to put you in a good mood, because then you’re likely to spend more money. Although most people intend to walk through the store quickly, delicious aromas, attractive displays, soothing music, and even those tasty samples are all intended to stimulate your senses, forcing you to relax, slow down, and look around. After all, the more you linger and look, the more you’ll buy.  

Location, Location, Location
Supermarkets are incredibly deliberate about how they place their products. If you pop into the market for just a few basic items like milk, bread, and eggs, you’ll probably find them in opposite corners of the store. Experts estimate that between 40–60 percent of all grocery purchases are made on impulse and stores want to maximize this opportunity. They know that plenty of people stop in only for staples, so they spread them as far apart from each other as possible, making you walk down multiple aisles in the hopes that on the way to collect what you came for, you’ll be tempted by other tasty-looking items.

If you’re a bargain shopper, you probably already know that the lower-priced items and generic brands tend to be either on the top or bottom shelf … more expensive and eye-catching items tend to appear at eye-level, where they’re most likely to be noticed. Product placers don’t just think about adults’ eye level either—sugary cereals, toys, and candy are placed lower on the shelves specifically to attract the attention of children.

Most of the store’s popular items tend to be located in the middle of the aisle, because once you’ve walked through half the aisle, you’ll likely keep going, being exposed to as many items as possible. That’s why stores have long aisles: to keep the customers trapped like rats in a maze. It’s also why they place cumbersome product displays in the middle of the aisles; this forces shoppers to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings, thereby increasing the chance of an impulse purchase.

The Register Trap
Waiting at the register can be pretty boring. You’re tired and you’re hungry, so why not grab a candy bar to hold you over for the drive home? While you wait to check out, you start reading a magazine, so you might as well buy it to find out how that article ends. And there’s a stack of DVDs on sale—one of which you missed in the theaters and it’s only ten bucks now, so you might as well add that too. And your remote control is out of batteries, so it’s a good thing you noticed them sitting there.

Starting to get the picture?

Candy and soda appeal to the hungry and thirsty shopper, magazines are there to quell your boredom, and there’s all sorts of handy trinkets and doodads, from eyeglass repair kits to breath spray, just waiting there for you to realize you need them.

On Sale … Possibly
Stores love to use the promise of sales to entice customers into purchasing things. When there is a stack of items on an endcap (that little shelf right on the end of the aisle), most people assume that those items are on sale. Grocery stores rely on that assumption and they love to place eye-catching piles of merchandise there, even though the items are often regularly-priced.

Stores try to convince people that not only do they need to buy something, they need to buy it now. When items go on sale “for a limited time” or “now through March 25th,” customers are more likely to feel that they can’t pass up the bargain and stock up regardless of need. Stores use deceptive signage, too. Statements like “2 cans for $4” make it seem like you must buy two to get the sale, but many times, the unit price is the same whether you buy one can or seven. Of course, the store doesn’t want you to only buy one can, hence the trickery.

One favorite trick is the “limit sale.” According to research, when customers are presented with a regular sale, they buy a few of any given item. However, if they’re presented with a sale that stipulates “limit 10 per customer,” they’ll buy even more. Psychologically, the customer thinks that they must be getting a great deal if the store has to limit the number of items they can buy. The limit sale has nothing to do with getting great deals; it has everything to do with driving up purchases.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the grocery store, with all the sights, smells, and sounds screaming for your attention. Stores put a lot of time and energy into figuring out exactly how they can manipulate you into spending more money, so the next time you take a trip to the supermarket, be strong, read the labels, and don’t let the smell of baking cookies fool you into actually buying them.  

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.