Have you ever compared your shopping list to the items listed on your receipt when you get home?

Very rarely are they the same. Part of the reason for this is the fact that supermarkets are often specifically designed to influence your buying. We take a closer look at this – some of the tactics may surprise you.

When you walk into a supermarket, the game begins between you and the sales/marketing team of that supermarket. Your goal is usually to get in and out with the groceries that you need. Whereas, their goal is to influence your buying in an attempt to get you to spend as much money as possible.

Largely, this is done by specifically designing a supermarket that leverages off the findings from behavioural economics research

The entrance
A humble trolley
Prior to walking into the supermarket, you will often head over to the trolley area. Unfortunately, there is more to that humble trolley than you might think.

One of the first shopping trolleys, referred to as a ‘folding basket carrier’, was introduced in 1937. It consisted of a foldable metal frame that moved around on wheels and could hold two small baskets. Since then, the design has undergone numerous changes. However, of most note has been its size and carrying capacity. For example, most trolleys that you find today in supermarkets are much larger in size and carrying capacity than their predecessors.

Whilst there are many good reasons for this change, a larger array of items available in supermarkets to purchase for example, a major reason is the impact that a trolley’s size and carry capacity has on us from a psychological point of view. Namely, the bigger the trolley, the greater the likelihood that we will be inclined to fill it further.

First impressions 
You have probably heard the phrase, ‘First impressions matter’. When it comes to supermarkets, this is particularly relevant. As we often have multiple competing priorities, setting the time aside to do the shopping can be quite stressful (especially if we have children that need to tag along). This means that our initial mood when we step through the entrance of a supermarket can often not be ideal from the point of view of a supermarket’s sales/marketing team. Namely, we want to get the experience over and done with as quickly as possible.

Consequently, after negotiating the trolley selection, the first thing that confronts you in a supermarket is often the bakery and fresh produce sections, as well as some ambient music playing over the internal speakers. The smell of freshly baked goods, the brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, and the often slow tempo music are all attempts to try to ‘recalibrate’ your mood to something more conducive. They are looking to elicit two main responses, relaxation and hunger, because studies have shown that these things can influence your spending behaviour:

  • Relaxed = more time spent in the supermarket, leading to increased purchasing.
  • Hunger = more food item purchases.

The layout
Department locations
Have you ever had to pick up some mid-week supplies, such as bread and milk, and found yourself with a few extra items when you reach the checkout area? One of the reasons for this is the layout of the supermarket departments (bakery, fresh produce, meat/deli, general grocery, dairy, frozen goods etc.).

By placing essential items, such as the bread and milk example above, at different ends of a store, it requires you to walk through other departments to get to what you want. This tactic is aimed at distracting and enticing you towards other items that you see along the way.

Aisles
There are many tactics employed by the sales/marketing team when it comes to aisles, such as displays and general product placement. We have listed a few here:

  • Displays. Research has shown that when people shop, they tend to go around the edges of the supermarket, dipping in and out of the aisles. Consequently, items on display at the end of aisles aim to entice you. Unfortunately, despite them often being accompanied by signs saying ‘SPECIAL’, they are usually highly priced items (with high-profit margins) when compared to alternatives.
  • Aisle width. You will often find that the aisles are quite wide in supermarkets, noticeably more so than in the past. This is not just for your convenience when manoeuvring your oversized trolley around other people (and their oversized trolley). Wide aisles, just like the freshly baked goods, the brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, and the slow tempo music, aim to make you feel relaxed and… relaxed = more time spent in the supermarket, leading to increased purchasing.
  • Eye level. It’s often human nature to focus on things that are at eye level. The sales/marketing team frequently take advantage of this by putting expensive items at eye level (even if they have a SPECIAL sign). As such, by looking above and below eye level, you may find cheaper, but still good quality alternatives. However, importantly, certain aisles are set to influence two different eye levels, namely, adults and children. You can probably guess which aisles these are.
  • Charm pricing. By marking an item with a nine at the end ($5.99), many of us are still falling victim to the belief that it’s a good deal. This can be in terms of a comparison between a rounded alternative ($6.00) or with shopping in general.
  • Spend and save. You have probably seen multiple purchase pricing many times before, the five-for-$5 deals for example. Often people that are enticed by this offer tend to buy five items when in fact they probably only needed one. A slight variation to multiple purchase pricing, but with a similar premise, is the ‘buying one item and getting the second for half price’ example.
  • Emotional purchases. There are some items in the supermarket that you may engage with on an emotional level, coffee/tea or baby food for example. Because of this, you may spend a little more time before making a decision. As such, you will often find these types of items in the middle of the aisle. The rationale behind this can be as follows:
    • It draws you further into the aisle so that you interact with other items.
    • It stops you from obstructing others from entering the aisle.
  • Layout swaps. When you have been shopping in a particular supermarket for some time, you might reach a point where you think you have figured out where everything is located. This serves to not only make you more efficient in your shopping time, but also less susceptible to distractions and enticements. Consequently, from time to time, a supermarket will undergo a layout swap, with the aim of disorientating you and subsequently exposing you to other items.

The finish line
Checkouts and those last minute purchases
You made it, albeit probably with a little more in your trolley than expected. Now it’s time to put everything through the checkout. But wait, what about those chocolates, magazines, and chewing gum that are just within arm’s reach. This is one of the last attempts by the sales/marketing team to get you to purchase more items. Unfortunately, this can often be especially difficult to navigate past if you have children accompanying you.

Moving forward
As you might have already been aware, the supermarket is a complex place. Thought has been put into every little detail often with the sole aim of influencing your buying. So when you do your next grocery shop take some time to be mindful of all the different tactics that are employed by a supermarket’s sales/marketing team – you might just find that you spend less and save more.

Lastly, we leave you with a few handy tips for your next shop:

  1. Plan your meals in advance.
  2. Consult your fridge/freezer/pantry for items you already have.
  3. Write a shopping list before heading to the supermarket.
  4. Although, not always possible, consider leaving children at home with the spouse.
  5. Opt for a basket over the shopping trolley.
  6. Look at the unit prices between packaged and unpackaged items.
  7. Despite rewards programs, don’t be afraid to shop around for a better price.