Nutrition Column – Supermarket Psychology 101

Have you ever walked into the supermarket with the intention of buying two items and instead walked out with more than a dozen? Coincidence? Probably not. Supermarkets have conducted extensive research on consumers and their shopping habits, and they know how to get you to fill your cart and empty your wallet.  

For example, one tactic supermarkets use is the smell of freshly baked bread coming from the in-store bakery during the after-work rush. The smell of warm bread makes people feel hungry. And when you feel hungry while shopping, you’re more likely to buy additional items.

Another trick some retailers employ is stocking more expensive items at eye level and on the right. Because we read from left to right, our eyes naturally scan store shelves from left to right. The eye stops on the more expensive items on the right, making shoppers more likely to purchase them. Retailers also locate commonly purchased items, such as milk and eggs, at the back of the store so that shoppers have to walk through the entire store to get to the items they came in for.

Tickets and tags are another ploy retailers use to grab consumers’ attention. We rely on retailers to use tags to highlight sale items, but they also may attach tags to non-sale items that say things like "everyday low price" to help maximize the sale of a product. Waiting in the check-out line? It’s filled with impulse items like batteries, gum, candy bars, magazines and other frivolous products not on your list.

The good news is that, by being aware of supermarket marketing ploys and developing a shopping strategy of your own, you can save time and money as well as avoid the urge to make impulse purchases. Here are some tips to help keep impulse spending under wraps at the supermarket.

– Write down what you need before you shop. Starting out with a shopping list not only reminds you of what you need, but it also will keep you from buying items you don’t need.

– Eat before you shop. Don’t take hungry kids or spouses with you. Hungry shoppers are more likely to buy impulse items, especially ready-to-eat and snack items. If you do arrive on an empty stomach, stop by the in-store deli or head directly for the free samples that many supermarkets offer before making your selections.

– Observe product placement. More expensive items are usually placed at eye level, within easy reach. Less expensive items are placed either high or low.  

– Double-check prices on product displays and aisle end caps. Store displays, including those located at the end of the aisles, do not always feature sale items. Also, keep in mind that non-sale items often are displayed along with sale items.

– Check products and prices featured in weekly supermarket ads distributed in the local newspaper. Shop the specials only if you will use the product. And remember, although "buy one, get one free" may sound like a good deal, the "one" is often marketed at an increased price.

– Avoid extra trips to the supermarket. There is no better way to curb impulse buying than to stay out of the supermarket. Try to keep your shopping trips down to once per week or less.

– Compare unit price labels across brands and sizes within brands. While the larger size is often the least expensive per ounce or product unit, this is not always the case. And even if the economy size costs less per ounce, if you don’t need it or it spoils before you can use it, it may be more costly per serving.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension