How Supermarkets Trick Our Brains

One of the most variable budget items is your grocery shopping. It can grow out of control or shrink dramatically depending on the month, your mood and even what time you shop.

Supermarkets encourage spending. Every single aspect of their design is chosen to make shoppers buy more stuff. Shopping when you’re trying to keep to a budget is like walking into the lion’s den. You need a plan to escape unscathed.

In this article, I’ll explain the techniques, strategies and trickery at work when you enter a supermarket.

Once you understand the manipulation it becomes easier to ignore. Follow-up articles will discuss different ways you can dramatically save on your shopping.

Read on for a list of all the supermarket tricks that trick you into buying more than you need.

Supermarket tricks at work

Supermarket tricks to make you buy more things you don't need.

Your large-scale supermarket looks like a large warehouse full of shelves. It is, in fact, much more than that. A supermarket is one of the most advanced psychology laboratories in the world, optimized to an extent that’s difficult to believe.

To what end?

To increase people’s propensity to spend and to maximize the revenue  squeezed out of every individual who enters the store. Everything you see and every aspect of the layout and lighting is calculated to make you spend more. Supermarkets are traps, and we are their willing victims.

The methods used to manipulate you fall broadly into three categories.

The Layout

The layout above (click to enlarge) is taken from my nearest large-ish grocery store. You enter at the bottom right, and need to exit via the blue tills, and then back to the bottom right.

A few observations:

  • Assuming I need at least some vegetables, fish, pasta, razor blades, toilet paper and a bottle of diet coke, I have to – at a minimum – walk the entire periphery of the store and down three aisles. It’s super inefficient.
  • The first thing I encounter is fruit & vegetables, followed by bread. These are the items most likely to be crushed or damaged by the rest of my shopping, and yet they’re going at the bottom of my basket or trolley? It’s completely illogical and inconvenient, and yet supermarkets do it. Why? Because these things look good and put us in a buying frame of mind.
  • Alcohol and cigarettes come last. In other words, those items most likely to be impulse purchases or based on a latent addiction are right at the end of my shop, when I’m suffering from decision fatigue.

None of this is by accident. A shop wants to maximize two things: The amount of time you spend inside and the number of products you’re exposed to.

Once they’ve achieved this, they’ll optimize further by placing specific items in specific places – more on this later.

This layout forces each shopper to travel the length of the supermarket, up and down a maximum number of aisles. It starts with visions of bright and healthy fruit and veg to put you in the mood. Only later, when you’re halfway through, will your weakened spirit be faced with the temptation of chocolate, cookies and candy.

After 20 minutes of shopping, you’ve made so many decisions it’s difficult to continue making calculated choices. This is called decision fatigue. At this point your emotions take over. That’s when you’ll see the selection of chocolate bars, the homeware gadgets you don’t need and the high sugar kids cereals. When you’re most easily influenced.

Product Positioning

Items placed at eye level attract our notice, and we attach more importance to them.

That doesn’t mean the best or the most expensive brands will be at eye level. The supermarket will position its highest margin brands there, or those that have paid for the positioning.

The items are certainly not placed there for your buying convenience.

At the bottom of the shelf will be lower-priced goods that provide modest margins.

Popular or essential items are placed mid-way down an aisle. This is to force shoppers to walk at least halfway down each aisle, making them zig-zag through the shop. This way they cover all of the aisles and are exposed to a maximum breadth of products.

When two items compete fairly equally on quality and price, it can be hard to choose. If the decision takes too long, shoppers often decide to buy neither of them. To counter this, shops introduce a third item, perhaps at a lower price point and of visibly lower quality. This is known as a decoy. Psychologically, the rejection of the decoy item makes it easier to select one of the other two options.

End-of-aisle positioning is the gold standard for product promotion. Products placed in end-of-aisle displays sell as much as eight times more than if they were presented elsewhere. Whatever brands you see there most likely had to pay for the positioning, or they’re brands the shop really wants to offload.

At the checkout counters are reward-style impulse purchases ranging from tobacco to chewing gum, celeb magazines to candy. Given the effort of shopping, there is a psychological tendency to reach for a reward at the end. Supermarkets make sure those rewards are readily available precisely the moment shoppers are most likely to buy them.

Lighting, Ambiance, Design

Fruit and vegetables don’t need to be kept damp. While the misting may keep some of the vegetables fresher for longer, that’s only part of the story. Misting adds water to a product that is sold by weight, which increases the price. The water droplets and orange lighting also serve to make the product look much more colorful.

The mist and lighting does provide an illusion, however. The bright lights and just-picked look of the produce is a signal of how wholesome and healthy everything is. It puts shoppers in the right mood to spend money on expensive, allegedly healthy foods.

When fresh meat or fish is available, there is typically a white background to signal how fresh and clean everything is.

Most supermarkets have bakeries, but supermarket bakeries are a pointless waste of space. That’s because they’re only finishing off part-baked frozen goods that were prepared elsewhere. But the smell of freshly baked goods has a large, measurable effect on shopper behavior. It increases purchases and triggers hunger, which is very bad for rational decision-making in a store packed with food.

At the alcohol section, some of the wines are usually better presented than others. There’s no need to present more expensive wine a certain way, at least not in a supermarket. It’s just as well preserved upright on a shelf as it is at an angle in a wooden box under a yellow light. After all, none of these products are expected to stay in the shop for very long. But the raised wooden floor, muted lighting and extra space is there for a purpose. It highlights the premium status of the more expensive brands, encouraging shoppers to upgrade.

Who’s in Control?

With this many tricks (and many more) being used to influence our behavior, there’s no doubt that we are not our own masters as we wander around a large grocery store or supermarket.

The experience is designed to induce decision fatigue, then harness our emotions to make decisions for us.

Special offers are not so special. Discounts are often misleading. Promotions are designed to get you into the store so you buy other items you don’t want in quantities you don’t need.

Even the size of your supermarket trolley is a trick – you don’t need it that big but research has shown that the larger your trolley the more you’ll buy.

The supermarket’s in control of your decisions to a remarkable extent. It’s important to be aware of this as we walk into the lion’s den.

I’ll write next about how to take back control of our buying decisions when ambushed by so many sales techniques.

Just in case you’re going shopping immediately after reading this, want to avoid supermarket tricks and don’t have time to read the next article, here’s a simplified spoiler:

  • Make a written list and stick to it.
  • Make sure you’ve picked which brand you’ll buy each time
  • If a brand isn’t available, prefer downgrading to upgrading
  • Don’t go shopping hungry.
  • Minimize the time you spend in the shop
  • Walk the “wrong” way around the shop

See you next time!