It happens to everyone: Hit the supermarket for 1 or 2 items and walk out with 1 or 2 bags of groceries.
No one forced you to stock up on fresh, juicy fruit. Nor did anyone urge you to snap up a bag of crunchy snacks or sample a few new condiments.
But advertising and marketing don’t end when you turn off your TV, radio or cellphone. Retailers and manufacturers are putting more dollars into front-line efforts in the stores themselves, says Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell and author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”
If stores do it right, you have fun shopping a clean, bright store and bringing home some interesting things to eat. And if you also want to stick to your budget, it pays to recognize in-store marketing when you see it.
Do you keep overspending when you hit the supermarket? See if any of these 7 marketing strategies might help explain why.
The Bankrate Daily
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In many grocery stores, the produce section will be one of the first things you see, says Underhill. And, if the store is smart, it looks and smells great.
It’s also “lit theatrically,” he says. “Stuff looks better in the produce section than it ever will in your kitchen.”
And the technique works. “As Americans, we tend to overspend on produce by 20%,” says Underhill.
One other point that works against us is almost hardwired into our brains — call it “the pioneer ethos,” he says. “All of us feel a little better when the pantry is full and the refrigerator is full.”
Europeans and Asians, societies where the tradition is to walk to the market and return with the day’s food, “are much better about buying what they consume,” says Underhill.
To save money: When it comes to produce, forget your list and buy what looks best and freshest. But limit yourself to what you can truly use in the next day or 2.
The basic floor plan of the average supermarket — and most retail stores — is set up to move you counter-clockwise through the store, says Underhill. You walk in, take a cart, go to your right, and keep moving.
The reason: As you steer the cart with your left hand, you can easily grab things with your right. And most shoppers are right-handed, which makes the whole setup feel natural.
One inconvenience that’s actually intentional: Shopper staples such as milk and eggs are often in the opposite back corner of the store. That’s because retailers know that you’ll have to pass a lot of items before you get to what you’ve come to buy, says Underhill. And the more things you see, the more you’re likely to buy.
But some stores, especially those feeling competition from local convenience stores, will do just the opposite, and set up a conveniently located fixture near the front with milk, eggs and other dairy items.
Now that consumers can buy food everywhere from big-box stores and farmers markets to drugstores, the polite war of one food chain versus another has turned into “a bar fight,” he says.
These days, stores looking to compete are also giving you a little entertainment for your food dollar.
“Almost all store planners are trying to find ways to engage all 5 senses,” says Underhill.
Walk in the door, and you’ll smell the bakery, the produce or the flowers. That gets the salivary glands working. The lighting and displays invite you to touch, which makes you more likely to buy.
Even the background music is carefully selected. Shop the store mid-morning on Monday, with a lot of moms and retirees, and you’ll hear the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra or Death Cab for Cutie, he says.
Retailers will invite you to taste samples. And many post pictures of the farmers and purveyors, especially when the food is local, he says. “The most prevalent movement in food is local.”
Education is another popular strategy that’s a win for the store and the consumer.
One store posted information on 5 different sizes of shrimp, briefly listing the difference in the taste of each, as well as cooking suggestions. The store sold more shrimp because it gave “people the courage to try something different,” Underhill says.
This is an old-school strategy, but it still works. Retailers call it a “loss leader.”
A store will put something on sale at a really good price — often something that’s normally pretty pricey or very popular. It might be name-brand diapers. Or whole turkeys at Thanksgiving. Or steaks during summer cook-out season.
But the deal is so good, it’s worth a special trip. “They do this because they know when I come to the store, I’ll fill my cart with a bunch of other things,” says Steve White, vice president of commerce strategy for Razorfish, a marketing and advertising firm based in New York.
Retailers can fine-tune that strategy, too, he says. If they want to bring in a specific type of customer, such as an affluent consumer, they’ll select a loss-leader item to attract that customer base, such as a high-dollar dog food. Or if grocers want to draw people into a less-traveled part of the store — the center aisles, for instance — they’ll use an item that lives there, such as diapers.
What’s easier: Pitching you a product, or letting you pitch it to yourself?
With the “endowment effect,” retailers or marketers get you to imagine you already own the item, says White. Then, instead of rationalizing reasons to pick it up, you’re left coming up with reasons not to buy it. And you’ve done all the heavy lifting for them.
This is what’s at play when you see an “aspirational” poster of a svelte couple having fun at the beach with a hamper full of snack products or soft drinks, he says. And it’s why stores will give out samples or trial sizes of products, he says. “They get you to imagine owning the product to get you to buy.”
Save money by sticking to your list, says White.
Whether it’s an actual written list, a note on your phone or just a series of items in your head, if you focus on that, you’re less likely to get distracted by what you see, smell and taste in your favorite food store.
You go into the store for your kid’s favorite graham crackers, and a nearby display includes both chocolate and marshmallows. You think, “Oooh, s’mores,” and throw all 3 items in the cart.
“Now you’re spending more,” says Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, author of “Retail 101” and founder of RetailMinded.com.
Some combos are obvious, like hot dogs and buns, she says. Others are more subtle — such as paper plates and upmarket party napkins or plastic ware.
See a big display on the end of an aisle, called an end cap, and you’re liable to think that the item is on sale, says Underhill.
Not necessarily. It could simply be an item the store wants to promote. But when you see it, you’re already evaluating whether or not you need it — such as a special ketchup or mustard for those burgers.
“Train yourself to stay focused on your purchases,” says Reyhle. And remember the limited storage space you have at home. Just ask, “Do I need this? Where will I store it? Is it something I will really use?” she says.
Ever pounce on those checkout displays loaded with favorite snacks or cold drinks? Shop hungry, thirsty or tired, and you’re more likely to start throwing extras into your cart.
The “most obvious way” stores entice you to spend is during checkout,” says Reyhle. That’s where shoppers are “tempted, persuaded and reminded of various other things they may need or want,” she says.
And shoppers are accustomed to seeing everything from candy and bubblegum to magazines and hand sanitizer within arm’s reach when they check out.
“Nobody has cracked the code on impulse purchases” like grocery stores, says White.
Want to resist? “The very simple first step is recognizing it,” says Reyhle. “Write that list and stay committed to buying only what’s on that list.”
Another way stores can tempt you? Call it a “convenience fee” or the “too tired tax.”
That cold can of your favorite soda in the refrigerator at the front of the store might be $1.59, White says. But walk all the way to the back of the store, and you might be able to find 2 liters of that same drink on a shelf for 99 cents.
Underhill says never shop on an empty stomach or if you’re fatigued if you want to save big. “We end up being eminently less disciplined shoppers when we’re tired or hungry.”