Grocery store ploys
Grocery shopping. We hate it, we tolerate it or we
enjoy it. But basically we all take it for granted. How complicated
can it get? An American institution since the 1930s, the supermarket
saves us the hassle of shopping around at several smaller stores
or, God forbid, growing our own food.
The folks who count the beans in the back office are
aware that our food shopping habits are big business. Face it. We're
a captive audience of consumers -- everyone has to eat, after all
... and drink beer ... and occasionally get a veggie tray for the
Think about it. Remember the last time you went in
for just a grapefruit and a six pack of beer -- and you ended up
walking out with $42 in groceries including a loaf of French bread,
a jar of olives, a birthday card for Mom and a pack of gum? Coincidence?
I think not. Supermarkets have researched you and me -- and our
shopping habits -- over the years, and they know what it takes to
get us to fill our carts and empty our wallets.
Men In Black on aisle 3
"[Marketers] follow people in test stores and
see how long people spend in certain areas," explains Jack Gifford,
a marketing professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "They
look for blind areas. They do surveys afterward." Like you need
more conspiracy theories in your life. Now you have to worry about
the little old lady in the flowery housedress who follows you from
aisle to aisle.
"It's a huge business. And they all have scanning
data [about our shopping habits]," explains Gifford. Chain supermarkets
will try one method in 20 stores and a different one in another
20 stores, then discover which method is most productive ... in
getting you to buy more. We're the guinea pigs, and our cash is
The tricks of the grocers' trade are designed "to
entice the consumer and increase the size of the grocery basket,"
explains Arun K. Jain, professor of marketing research at the University
of Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y.
And no, I'm not going overboard suggesting that the
big bad grocers are practicing mind control and making you waste
your money. You're buying products you need for the most part: food,
beverages, toilet paper. The supermarkets just want you to buy more,
newer and more expensive items. Being aware of how stores manipulate
your time and money up and down the aisles will make you a wiser
and savvier shopper.
The good stuff on aisle 8
Is this your typical grocery store excursion?
You're in a hurry. You're hungry. You zip through the aisles getting
your basics for the week, picking up whatever catches your eye.
Well, you probably just blew a lot of money. Supermarkets take advantage
of our laziness, placing the priciest items right at eye level.
Kids' items, on the other hand, are place at their
eye-level. Candies, toys, the sweetest cereals are all there for
little grabbing hands. Now you know ... and now it's your problem
to deal with your screaming child.
Next time you're in your local grocery store, note
that most of your basics are located along the outside walls --
"a racetrack," says Professor Jack Gifford. If you are just dropping
in for some bananas and milk, don't go wandering down those aisles
of temptation. By taking a few seconds to scan the prices and values
of products found near the floor or on the top shelf, you could
save a little dough.
And I'm sure you've noticed how crowded the front
of the store is. You end up in lines that snake around displays
and tables of goodies. By the time you reach the cashier, you've
picked up just a couple dollars more worth of stuff: Baked goods
and candy to tempt our inner child, magazines (including those tabloids)
and a last-chance bouquet of flowers.
Then there are the displays of seasonal items as you
walk in, reminding you of things you never knew you needed. The
Halloween candy that shows up in September; the Valentine's Day
candy that shows up in January; the Easter candy that shows up before
Mardi Gras. Like if you buy this stuff now, it's really going to
survive uneaten until the holiday. They're counting on you coming
back to restock by the big day. Yes, grocery stores are taking advantage
of our most base instincts. OK, I admit I fall for this one -- but
it annoys me.
Lose your sense-ibilities on aisle 5
Speaking of basic instincts, your senses are
being used against you. Stores motivate your buying impulses by
affecting your hearing, smell and taste. For example, according
to Gifford, you probably tune out the bland music in the background
and don't even notice that they are playing commercials to you while
you shop. And it's not just ads. The type of music is carefully
"Music in a major chord sells more than music in a
minor chord," he explains. Yes, someone actually measured this.
Additionally, certain beats of music slow shoppers down, making
them dawdle before all those luscious displays of goods.
An in-store bakery is another way for the market to
get your stomach to rule your wallet. One whiff of fresh-baked bread
in your nose, and the store is sure to up its profits. Yes, someone
proved this in a study. I've personally seen it work on my husband.
"The smell of freshly baked bread makes you hungry,"
says Jain. "You're likely to be enticed to buy items from the bakery
and from the store."
And, what better way to affect your food shopping
habits than with a direct assault on your taste buds? That yummy
and free meatball sample ... or a chip-ful of some new brand of
salsa, dished out by sweet little old ladies. C'mon, those free
food samples are an obvious marketing ploy.
"If you like it, you often don't ask the price. You
pick up the item, put it in the cart and move on," says Jain about
Same stuff as yesterday on aisle 9
The bargain hunter in you is probably still confident
you've been saving cents by buying sale items. (Hey, Sugar Puff
Daddy-o's cereal for 25 cents off -- what a deal!) Oh, you poor
"If it says it's a sale, people think it's a bargain,"
says Jain. He explains that the list price that is shown for comparison
to the sale price is usually just there for comparison. The store
would never sell the item for that price -- it's just for looks.
It makes the "sale" look good. You might be buying a $1.29 can of
tuna for the fabulous price of $1.29.
Similarly, coupons get consumers to buy products they
normally wouldn't buy.
"My studies have shown that if people have coupons,
they won't check if it is a bargain," says Jain. "A lot of people
don't check the unit price." He explains that coupons and sales
are often inspired by a store's overstock. If the supermarket has
a lot of cans of tuna to move or if the product is about to be withdrawn,
they'll "promote" it with a sale or coupon. Basically, we may buy
something we wouldn't normally buy because it's discounted and,
as a consequence, they get their backroom cleaned out.
Another sales trick is the old 2-for-1 deal. Again,
the supermarket's goal is not to save you dollars, but to move that
product out. You, the customer, end up buying more than you would
have and possibly wasting food. It's not a bargain for you
if you're not going to eat that much.
OK, don't get all freaked out by any sale sign. If
you were buying tuna anyway and it's on sale or has a coupon, then
everyone wins (except Charlie the Tuna). The point is to rein in
your bargain-hunter instincts that may lead you to buy things not
on your list (think of those Sugar Puff Daddy-O's).
Another danger point in the store is a sale that's
not really a sale. In other words, be aware of those glorious stacks
of items at the ends of the aisle (called an endcap). You kinda
figure that the store put all those boxes of cereal there because
they're on sale. No. Often it just looks like they're on
sale. Read the signs and prices carefully -- and check your shopping
Parsley, sage, rosemary and lost time on aisle
Grocery stores have one last trick up their grocer's
sleeves to make the above ploys even more effective. They try to
make you spend more time in the store. One way stores get you to
spend more time there is by expanding services, explains Jain. You
know, all those non-food items you can conveniently pick up at the
supermarket: film, dry cleaning, prescription drugs, lottery tickets,
"The idea is to give consumers multiple opportunities
to enter the store that will lead to exposure to other items," explains
Jain. And you just thought the store managers wanted to make your
life more convenient. Ha!
-- Updated: March 23, 2004