We’ve all made a run to the supermarket for one or two items and walked out with several bags of groceries. What makes us do that?
Advertising and marketing don’t end when you turn off your TV. Retailers and manufacturers are putting more money into front-line efforts in the stores themselves, says Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell, a behavioral research and consulting firm, and author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”
If stores do it right, you have fun shopping a clean, bright store and taking home some good things to eat. And if you also want to stick to your budget, it pays to recognize in-store marketing.
Do you keep overspending when you go to the supermarket? These seven marketing strategies might help explain why.
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.”
The technique works. “As Americans, we tend to overspend on produce by 20 percent,” says Underhill.
One thing that works against us is almost hard-wired into our brains. Underhill calls it “the pioneer ethos.”
“All of us feel a little better when the pantry is full and the refrigerator is full,” he says.
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, forget your list and buy the produce that looks best and freshest. But limit yourself to what you can use in the next day or two.
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Counter-clockwise floor plan
The basic floor plan of the average supermarket — and most retail stores — is set up to move you counterclockwise through the store, says Underhill. You walk in, take a cart, go to your right, and keep moving.
As you steer the cart with your left hand, you can easily grab things with your right. Most shoppers are right-handed, so it makes the whole setup feel natural.
One inconvenience that’s intentional: Shopper staples such as milk and eggs are often in the opposite back corner of the store. That’s because retailers want you to see a lot of items before you get to what you’ve come to buy, says Underhill. The more things you see, the more you’re likely to buy.
Some supermarkets, especially those facing competition from local convenience stores, will do just the opposite and set up a conveniently located display near the front of the store 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,” Underhill 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 five senses,” says Underhill.
Walk in the door, and you’ll smell the bakery, the produce or the flowers. 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 of them display pictures of the farmers and purveyors, especially when the food is local. “The most prevalent movement in food is local,” says Underhill.
Education is another popular strategy that’s a win for the store and the consumer. One store posted information on five different sizes of shrimp, briefly describing the difference in the taste of each one and giving cooking suggestions. The store sold more shrimp because it gave “people the courage to try something different,” Underhill says.
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One old-school strategy that still works is the use of “loss leaders.” A store will put something on sale at a really good price, often something that’s pretty pricey or very popular. It might be name-brand diapers. Or whole turkeys at Thanksgiving. Or steaks during summer cookout season.
The deal is so good, it’s worth a special trip to the store. “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, a vice president in the retail vertical at Publicis.Sapient, a Boston-based marketing and consulting business.
Retailers can fine-tune that strategy, too. 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 promote an item that lives there, such as diapers.
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. “They get you to imagine owning the product to get you to buy,” says White.
Save money by sticking to your list. Whether it’s a 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.
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Pairing items, end caps
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 three items in the cart.
“Now you’re spending more,” says Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, author of “Retail 101” and founder of RetailMinded.com, a blog and publication for independent retailers.
Some combos are obvious, like hot dogs and buns, she says. Others are more subtle, such as paper plates and fancy party napkins or plastic ware.
When you see a big display on the end of an aisle, called an “end cap,” you’re liable to think that the item is on sale, says Underhill.
But it might just be an item the store wants to promote. When you see it, though, 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. Ask yourself: “Do I need this? Where will I store it? Is it something I will really use?” she says.
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The most obvious place stores use to entice you to spend is the checkout lane, says Reyhle.
Do you ever pounce on those candy bars, salty snacks, gum or cold drinks that line the checkout aisle? If you’re hungry, thirsty or tired, you’re more likely to throw extras into your cart.
“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 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 when you’re fatigued if you want to save money. “We end up being eminently less disciplined shoppers when we’re tired or hungry.”