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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 office party.

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 their reward.

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.

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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 selected.

"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 food samples.

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 sap.

"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 list again.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and lost time on aisle 7
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, postage stamps.

"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

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See Also
It's $10, not $9.99, OK?
Was it worth it?
Sneaky ways to cut costs at the grocery store

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