How Supermarkets Trick You Into Spending More Money


How many times have you made a quick stop by the grocery store for a couple of simple items like milk and bread, only to wander out in a daze almost an hour later with an entire basketful of random items, junk food and 2-for-1 deals?

Perhaps you walked in with a mission and a list, only to be dazzled and delighted by the delicious smells in the bakery, shiny towers of fruits and vegetables, free samples of tasty dishes and the incredible deals – well, at least they looked like deals. But supermarkets are employing a wide variety of psychological tricks to encourage you to buy more than you need, which not even the most astute shopper can resist. 

Discover the following tricks that supermarkets commonly use to entice shoppers to shell out, and you will be able to resist their sneaky methods and save your money for what you really want.

  • Shopping carts: Invented in the 1930s to help shoppers tote their purchases, shopping carts are often grabbed automatically on the way into the store – and then filled along the way out. Don’t absentmindedly go for a cart. Instead, choose a small handled basket, or only buy what you can carry in your arms, especially on those quick runs for one or two items.
  • Bakery, floral & produce near the entrance: As soon as you walk in a supermarket, your senses are lambasted into happiness with the aroma of baking bread or fresh cut flowers and the colorful sights of the produce department. The shot of dopamine (and salivation) you get from these joyful sensations will make you more likely to impulse spend; enjoy the pleasure but remember your list!
  • Dairy in the back: The #1 item bought at most supermarkets is milk, which is almost always in the very back of the store, past shelves of high mark-up products, new items and enticing endcaps. If milk is your mission, it is easy to lose focus and grab extra items on the path to the back of the store.
  • Misty produce: Most supermarkets mist their fruits and vegetables every so often, despite the fact that it makes the produce rot faster. Why? Because humans like shiny things. We equate a dewy mist with being fresh, and consider shininess to always add value, from hair to cars and laptops to produce. Shinier = Better. Those misters are only there to make your brain think the produce is fresher and more valuable than it actually is.
  • Tiny aisles & slow music: Ever notice that supermarket aisle barely provide enough room for two carts to pass? That’s no accident – stores want you to go through them as slowly as possible. Slow music also makes you move slower, and the more stops you make, the more items you will buy. Shop at non-crowded times of the day (like early morning) to lessen this effect.
  • Endcaps with no sales: Featured items are always located on the endcaps or the ends of aisles with a huge price sign, but often these products are not on sale at all. The special location makes shoppers think that the price has been lowered, but in reality the endcap’s prime real estate is used to sell products with a higher markup – not lower.
  • Sales signs with no $: We all know the $.99 trick ($.99 seems to cost much less than a penny than $1.00), which uses our subconscious desires to trump our logical brains that know better. Another version of this trick is to remove the almighty dollar sign, which makes us think about spending money. Numbers alone make us think about saving money. Your brain processes $2.99 as more expensive that 2.99 – and supermarkets all over are following this trend of dropping the dollar sign.
  • “Limit 10 per customer”: Limiting the number of items you can buy makes the product seem scarcer and therefore more valuable. You might think everyone else is buying the limit and you will be left with none. Whenever you see a limit placed on the number of items that can be purchased, the grocery store is trying to tweak your brain.
  • Free samples: Would you like to try some cheesy poofs? Free samples not only slow you down even more, but also engage the reciprocity factor in your mind. When someone gives you a gift, you want to give them one too – and this works with free samples very well. You may buy a box of poofs just to “even the score” and uphold your side of this psychological force. Don’t fall for it!
  • Eye level: Expensive name brand items are always at eye level, with cheaper brands and generics on the top or bottom of the shelves where you are less likely to see them. One exception: The sugary cereal aisle, where the most expensive products are placed at children’s eye level and are likely to catch kids’ eyes.
  • Understaffed checkout lines: Do the check stands at your supermarket seem to always have lines no matter when you go? Grocery stores don’t want you zooming through the checkout stands, because this is where overpriced, impulse items like candy, soda, magazines and DVDs are located. While you’re waiting you may get hungry, thirsty or bored – all of which work in favor of grabbing a stimulating magazine or candy bar. Be aware that you are being stalled for a reason, and resolve not to add to your cart in the checkout line.

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