Frugal Living 

Supermarket Psychology (and a few insider tricks)

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View from inside a supermarket shopping cartThe Economist is known for its deep analysis and heavy topics, but I found this article about supermarkets and the science of shopping . The first time I heard about supermarket psychology was when someone explained to me that the most appealing products were always shown at eye level. When the product is placed at eye level, you are more prone to picking it up and subsequently buying it. That’s only the beginning.

If there’s one lesson to be learned after reading this article, it’s that supermarkets are one big maze and we’re the rats running through them.

Psychology Works!

The article is based out of Basingstoke, England but you’ll find that the description of the Sainsbury’s store layout is probably not unlike your local grocery store’s layout. My local Giant grocery store is laid out in the same manner. Our “decompression zone” holds the store circular and hand scanners. Our “chill zone” also has books and magazines and is set up right next to the pharmacy, presumably to keep you occupied if you’re waiting for your prescription.

Then we have fruits and vegetables, just like Sainsbury. Many of the staples, like meats and dairy, are located in the back after you walk through the aisles.

Traditionally retailers measure “footfall”, as the number of people entering a store is known, but those numbers say nothing about where people go and how long they spend there. But nowadays, a ubiquitous piece of technology can fill the gap: the mobile phone. Path Intelligence, a British company working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tracked people’s phones at Gunwharf Quays, a large retail and leisure centre in Portsmouth—not by monitoring calls, but by plotting the positions of handsets as they transmit automatically to cellular networks. It found that when dwell time rose 1% sales rose 1.3%.

Sneaky (creepy?) stuff huh? Check out the article, it’s well worth the read.

Back yet? Now that you’ve become aware of the psychology behind supermarkets, let’s get down tot eh nitty gritty with some tips that will help you win the war against those sneaky behavioral scientists and their mind games!

Supermarket Tricks

Here are a few tips I’ve learned when scouring the interwebs and my own mind. These are tips designed to save you money and time when you’re at the supermarket.

  • Make a list: Unless my wife and I are in the mood to wander around the supermarket (only because it’s freezing outside), we make a list based on the sales so we can get in and out as quickly as possible. By making a list and sticking to it, we save ourselves tons of time wandering. We also can save money by using sales circulars to plan our weeks meals based on the products on sale.
  • Don’t go when you’re hungry: This one is a common suggestion because it’s pretty obvious. When you’re hungry, everything looks good. Your desire to eat healthy goes out the window as you reach for a prepared meal that can be consumed after a two minute trip inside the microwave merry-go-round.
  • Skip prepared foods: You can save a ton of money just by butchering the chicken yourself. This rule holds true for basically everything else. You want some pork chops? Consider buying an entire pork loin and cutting it yourself.
  • Make your own prepared foods: Nothing stops you from getting the raw ingredients and making your own microwavable meals!
  • Be brand agnostic: If all things are equal, go with what’s cheaper. Generic products are usually as good as the brand name products. Also, a sale on a brand named product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper than generic version.
  • Read these 13 things your grocer won’t tell you: I’m a fan of these types of articles so check our Reader’s Digests 13 things your grocer won’t tell you (#2 – go ahead and reach back for the fresh milk and #1 – shop at dinner time to save time).

Seven Items to Skip

This is a list of seven items from Yahoo Finance, as well as reasons why (with my own commentary), you should skip on your trip to the grocery store. You’ll notice a theme here too, a lot of it has to do with products that have added labor in them. Bagged salads, spice mixes, tomato sauce. You can make many of these things yourself with a little extra work, work that can be a lot of fun!

  • Bagged salad: Convenient, but costs almost three times as much. Kits are even worse (and the dressing is usually horrible for you in terms of calories).
  • Energy or protein bars: They’ve replaced candy bars as the impulse buy of choice at checkout, you can buy these much cheaper online.
  • Spice mixes: A lot have salt as the first ingredient and you probably have most of the other spices in your cupboard already.
  • Bottled water: You’re overpaying for what you can get out of the tap, it’s one of the many items made more expensive by marketing.
  • Boxed rice entree or side-idsh mixes: It’s rice with a few other extras and you’re paying $3-4 a box for it, way too much.
  • Pre-formed meat patties: Buy the meat yourself and make your own patties, the premium you pay for them forming them is not worth it. By forming them yourself, you can add your own spices and ingredients to make a tastier burger.
  • Tomato-based pasta sauces: Buy canned tomatoes for $1 and add in your own ingredients instead of paying $2-$6 for a jar of their stuff. Here are a few homemade tomato sauce recipes you can use.

Every once and a while I write a post that just gets lost in woodwork of Bargaineering and today you’ll get to see one of those posts. This was originally drafted near the end of 2008 but for whatever reason, never actually got published. 🙂

Do you have any tips for the supermarket?

(Photo: kozumel)

{ 18 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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18 Responses to “Supermarket Psychology (and a few insider tricks)”

  1. Brent says:

    It just goes to show how predictable we really are, even when we don’t think we are. Thanks for the great advice!

  2. Grocery stores are sneaky! There is an incredible amount of marketing psychology that goes into making sure you buy what they want you to buy. I’ve also read that items on end stands (at the ends of each aisle) is where they will always keep the biggest money makers.

  3. Andrew says:

    I read the Economist every week, and I remember this article well. I worked in the supermarket business for a while, so I knew some of this stuff already, but it never hurts to be reminded. Thanks!

  4. One of my degrees is in marketing, and my consumer behavior class textbook is one of the few that I hung onto. Interesting stuff.

    re: The Reader’s Digest 13 tips

    – Baby formula is locked up? Where? Cough and cold meds are locked up around here (by state law) but not formula.

    – I always considered “grazers” to be folks who ate a grape here, a strawberry there … I considered this stealing, but some people didn’t. Ordering food at the deli and dumping the wrappers? That’s not even close to being a gray area.

    – I think Aldi’s has a cool shopping cart system. You have to insert a quarter into the cart to release the chain. You get the quarter back when you put the cart back. (For those of you who aren’t familair with this, this is a very simple mechanical process – no people involved). It’s only a quarter … but I rarely see stray carts at Aldi’s – everyone returns them to the correct spot to get their deposit back. A brilliant way to reduce dented cars AND save on labor.

  5. Fairy Dust says:

    I clicked through and then again to the 16 more tips post and take real issue with this one:

    2. Paper? Plastic? We don’t really care. But asking us to double-bag…that’s just wasteful.

    If check-out folks/baggers would not overload the paper bags, instead packing them correctly so as to fill them but not to the point where they pretty much have to tear, then I wouldn’t have to ask for them to be double bagged. Now I just take my own and do it myself. But really, I shouldn’t have to — there used to be bagging contests and people used to know how to bag properly with paper. Plastic apparently made all that obsolete, and I think plastic is wasted like crazy as a result.

    • superch665 says:

      I’ve noticed the opposite problem. Bagger packing one or two things per bag instead of filling them. I should end up with two bags but they hand me twenty. Drives me nuts!!

  6. Kevin says:

    I often shop the reverse. I walk straight to where I should have ended (e.g. milk or checkout) and work my way back to the produce.
    Reverse the psychology.

    For our family, list is a big deal. In general, if it’s not on the list we don’t buy it. All family members can contribute to the list before we go to the store, but once we are there, the list says what we buy. When the kids (or even us adults) ask for impulse items we just say “It’s not on the list.” If they complain, we tell them to put it on the list next time. By then it is, of course, forgotten.

    Nice post.

  7. Penny Seeds says:

    There’s a couple other things I’ve noticed that grocery stores will try to do to get you to buy more, and now.

    A lot of the time a grocery store is having a sale, it’s not really a sale. Just because it’s on display does not mean you’re saving money.

    For instance.. Macaroni and cheese is advertised as 2/$1. They don’t tell you it’s normally 50 cents a box. They also don’t tell you that you do not have to buy two of them to get them for 50 cents each. This instills in your brain that you need to buy this product now, and you need to buy two of them.

    Secondly, generic brands are ‘just as good’ as name brands, because they are. Careful observation of generic packaging will usually reveal what company makes it. The name brand manufactures the store brand on behalf of the grocery chain.

  8. superch665 says:

    Re: Do you have any tips for the supermarket?

    Leave the kids at home. They will always make you spend more.

  9. eric says:

    I like! 🙂

  10. Nathan says:

    “Energy or protein bars…you can buy these much cheaper online.”

    Any tips on the best sites to buy these from?

  11. Great tips! One needs to think when they grocery shop– marketers count on people not thinking . . .

  12. Harold says:

    Thanks for the excellent article. I already avoid most of the “10 items to avoid” however am concerned with the overall safety of the food industry in general and the fact it is controlled by just a handful of companies.

  13. Wilma says:

    I wish the grocery stores would teach people to fill a bag correctly. I bring my own bags and I try to fill them myself. I get so mad when I find cold wet items in with my bread or a box of cereal. And boy do they stuff the bags. One check out guy stuffed 5 bags of groceries into 2 bags. I wouldn’t leave the counter till I rebagged everything. I even put my stuff on the conveyor the way it should go in the bags.

    I always go with a list and strictly adhere to said list. Comparison shopping is a must to make sure your getting the most for your money. I make my own foods. No canned spaghetti, frozen dinners or boxed just add water meals either. Fresh is best for your health and your wallet cause you won’t be at the doctors office for heart burn or massive salt intake heart problems. Low sodium soup still has way too much salt. Make your own. Great family time project when you make a pot of soup together.

    Grow your own oregano, dill, basil, parsley or other spices. You can grow in a large pot on the back porch or a window box. You’ll love the fun of experimenting with them. Sprinkle on salads, sandwiches, in soups, on potatoes or other vegies. Google recipes and cook. =)

  14. cyntia hansen says:

    I have to disagree on your thinking that bagged salad is a bad buy. We have only 2 people in our house and to get a good mix of lettuces, we would have to buy many heads of lettuces which we could never eat before they rotted. So for families, you may be right, but in our case, it is better to pay more per pound and throw less out.

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