Sneaky Tricks Grocery Stores Use To Make You Buy More

We’ve all visited the grocery store for “a few things,” only to leave with a shopping cart filled with things we absolutely don’t need. If that happens to you, don’t feel bad. Grocery stores invest a lot of time and effort to trick customers into buying more.

Whether it’s where they place the product in the market or which colors they feature for sales, supermarkets carefully calculate every item on the shelf. Read on to learn the calculated tactics that grocery stores use to make people spend more so that you can outsmart them next time.

Find out the real reason why those delicious rotisserie chickens are always right at the front of the store.

Shopping Carts Keep Getting Bigger To Fit More Food

shopping carts getting bigger to fit more food
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Today, grocery store shopping carts are three times larger than they were in 1975. An experiment in 2011 demonstrated that when costumers use a bigger shopping cart, they buy up to 40% more products.

Shopping carts oddly benefit consumers as well. The Journal of Marketing Research claims that people who shop with baskets are more likely to buy “vice products,” or unhealthy, wasteful items. They hypothesize that bending your arm to carry the basket places strain that prompts impulsive spending.

Next, see why this item is always found near the check-out.

Candy Is Placed Near The Registers To Catch Your Sweet Tooth

Numerous American snack brands at an all American imported products food store in Hong Kong
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Because candy mainly sells during the holidays, supermarkets place them near the exits to increase sales. Some claim that this placement depends on decision fatigue, a psychological effect where our ability to make decisions lowers over time, resulting in impulse purchases.

Paco Underhill, consumer expert and author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, claims that these candy aisles are the most profitable sections of the store. “Two-thirds of what we buy in the supermarket we had no intention of buying,” Underhill says.

The Milk Is In The Back So You Have To Walk By Everything Else

A woman shops for milk at the Price Chopper grocery store in South Burlington, Vermont
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In 2014, NPR conducted an interview with Planet Money discussing “milk theories” for why supermarkets store milk in the back of the building. Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, believes that placing milk in the back forces customers to travel through the store. Bread, the other most popular item in grocery stores, usually sits far away from the milk, to make you buy more.

Another theory, present by David Kestenbaum, proposes that placing milk in the back is easier on the store. They don’t have to carry the cartons far to a refrigerator. Which theory do you believe?

Next, bringing your own reusable bag might help save the planet, but it’s not saving you much money.

Bringing Your Own Shopping Bag Makes You Buy More

A woman leaves a supermarket with a reusable shopping bag in Duisburg, Germany
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Several stores promote going green by offering reusable shopping bags in the place of plastic ones. According to Harvard Business School, this tactic may have an underlying intention. Research published in the 2015 Journal of Marketing proposes that carrying your own bags leads to buying more.

The researchers propose that bringing a reusable bag “increases purchases of environmentally friendly as well as indulgent (hedonic) items.” In other words, people buy healthy items, and also indulgent foods as a reward for buying more expensive organic foods.

Packing Nonessential Items In Display Spots Fuel Your Impulses

People are shopping fresh vegetables in a shopping market.
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You’ve probably seen several tables in the produce and bakery aisles that display on-sale items. In a 2014 interview with a former supermarket manager, Modern Farmer reported that employees intentionally stack these carts with nonessential items next to the on-sale items to encourage consumers to buy.

This “impulse impact” shopping allows stores to make up for the item that was on sale immediately. “If it’s done right, [it’s] a lot of psychology,” the former produce seller said. “We aren’t just throwing up stuff and hoping you’ll buy it.”

Coming up, see how shelving influences both adults and children to grab more products.

Advertising The Price As $9.99 Is A Common Psychological Trick

A citizen purchases nuts at a supermarket in China
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Most shoppers aim for products with the lowest price possible. Both grocery and retails stores use these “charm prices” to their advantage. According to research, customers do succumb to this technique due to the “left-digit effect.”

Psychologists theorize that the left-most digit influences our decision more than the right-most numbers, which is why $2.99 and $3.99 make more of an impact than $3.59 and $3.99. Several studies have supported this theory, including a 2005 study in the Journal of Consumer Research observed that consumers believed that they could afford more when prices ended in .99.

They Shelve Popular Brands In The “Bulls-Eye Zone”

bottles of coca cola on shelves in a store in England, UK
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Grocery stores often stock the most popular brands at eye level, what the CEO of Envirosell Craig Childress calls the “bulls-eye zone.” Because these products are the first ones that customers see, they also tend to be the most expensive.

“There’s no advantage for the supermarket to show you the lowest-price item in the most effective spot,” says Mike Tesler, President of Retail-Concepts. “So here you tend to see higher-priced items or items with the highest markup.” Tesler recommends looking below the bulls-eye zone to find similar products that cost less.

Adults aren’t the only people grocery stores are mindful of

They Also Keep Kids’ Eye-Levels In Mind

Father and son shopping  at the Pyaterochka store
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Have you ever shopped with a child who kept pointing out candies and snacks they want? Supermarkets intentionally place kids’ products where the children can see them. A 2018 study by Citi Retail Services illustrates that adults who shop with their kids spend 10-40% more on food and up to $100 more on school supplies.

Wendy Liebmann, president and founder of WSL Strategic Retail, recommends giving your kids an activity or snack while shopping to prevent them from putting things into your basket.

They Try To Bombard Customers With Delicious Smells

Young Mexican man in a bakery showing the bread he has for sale
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Have you ever wondered why the flowers and rotisserie chickens sit in the front of the store? Scientists have examined how smells influence the brain for years. In 2014, research in the Journal of Marketing noted that costumers buy more when they smell “warmer” scents, such as cinnamon and vanilla (as opposed to “cool” scents like peppermint).

Psychologists reason that these scents tell the brain that their environment is “emotionally dense,” or more crowded with people. “People want to get out of this negative space,” said co-author Adriana Madzharov, “and purchasing luxury products can give your status and power back.”

Next, this is why those rewards programs aren’t that rewarding

Rewards Programs Make You Spend More And Stay Loyal

A card reader at the cash register in the grocery discounter Penny
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Loyalty and rewards programs help you save money. They also persuade you to habitually use one business over another, resulting in more profit. In 2011, a study in Journal of Consumer Research discovered that people who gain higher points for purchases felt more satisfied and were more likely to recommend the program to others.

When peoples’ points and savings build, they continue to shop at the same outlet. The more they purchase from there, the more it becomes a habit. Unfortunately, researchers have observed that points don’t amount to much over time, but it makes us feel like we’re saving a lot.

Those Rewards Programs Also Teach Them Your Shopping Habits

Women shop for vegetables in a grocery store in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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Rewards members of grocery stores often receive their own cards that give discounts. What most costumers don’t know is that several stores use these cards to track your data, mainly which zip codes buy which products. Even if you haven’t give them personal information, most companies can track individual purchases through credit cards.

Guy Montague-Jones, author of The Grocer, reports that supermarkets create a demographic profile for you, how loyal you are, how much you spent, and which products are most popular. Tesco takes this to a new level by displaying targeted ads to online Clubcard users through Clubcard TV.

Labeling Foods As “Natural” Just Means It Can Be Priced Higher

om's of Maine decals are seen on the deodorant assembly line in the manufacturing plant
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Around 2016, Consumer Reports conducted a survey involving over 1,000 participants and found that over half of them preferred to purchase food with a “natural” or “all natural” label. Although most people believe that all natural foods contain no genetic modifications, hormones, or pesticides, the truth is that “natural” isn’t regulated or defined by the FDA.

Since the word is so vague, manufacturers can use it however they wish. Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., advocates that the FDA either ban the label or “give it a real meaning.”

Color Schemes On Food Packaging Makes A Difference

Multiple bags of Walkers crisps in different colors on display in a supermarket
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For decades, psychologists have studied the effect of color schemes on consumers. Psychologists of the University of Southern California suggest that “colors can have a symbolic significance in the products, which will affect the decision-making process.”

A 2003 study in the Journal of Business Review observed that blue color schemes increased sales by 15%. Red and gold combinations tend to grab peoples’ attention and incite feelings of hunger; fast food logos often use this color scheme for the same reason.

Providing An Educational Bonus Makes You Spend More

Nutri-Score designed as part of French National Nutrition and Health program
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Listing nutritional information on food packaging is an FDA requirement, even though many people don’t read the label. Food manufacturers often include extra bits of education on the packaging that consumers can buy, such as recipe ideas or nutritional benefits printed on the label.

Speaking of nutritional benefits, consumers are willing to spend 25% more for locally grown or organic foods. What many don’t know is that suppliers need to pay to be certified as “organic.” In other words, certain produce may be grown and treated the same as organic foods, but not labeled as such because they didn’t pay for the label.

One spot of grocery stores gets added to the cart so often that manufacturers pay more to be there.

Upbeat Or Slow Music Can Affect Your Shopping

Couple happily buys flowers at a grocery store
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Anyone who has worked in retail understands that upbeat music gets you through grueling shifts. But according to the American Marketing Association, the type of music playing impacts how much a consumer buys. Tempo, volume, and genre are all adjusted to optimize a shopper’s purchase.

A 2011 study noted that music with a happy tempo influenced customers to buy more than sadder music. Earlier research in 1982 concluded that slower music caused consumers to loiter more in the front aisles, which resulted in a 32% increase in sales.

Tasting Samples Are A Classic Way To Make You Buy Those Products

An employee passes out free bakery samples at the new Whole Foods Market
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Some people love going to Costco or Trader Joe’s to grab those free samples. The small loss in giving away their product increases their sales more than enough to make up for it. Joe Pinsker of The Atlantic recorded how free samples affected Costco’s sales throughout 2014.

Frozen pizza samples increased sales by 600%. Wine samples skyrocketed sales by 300%, and lipstick and mascara testing elevated sales by 500%. Free samples attract shopper’s attention and brighten their mood by providing a “gift.”

Stocking End Caps Make You Notice Things You Normally Wouldn’t

End caps of shelves in an Orleans supermarket

End caps are shelving at the ends of the aisle that customers have to pass in order to grab everything on their list. Manufacturers pay more to feature their products on end caps, for a good reason. Shoppers notice them more than regular displays, especially when they’re on sale.

End caps often include “banners” which function as a headline for the advertisement and usually place them at eye level where everyone can see them. On these shelves, grocers often pair related items: chips with salsa, bacon with eggs, etc. These pairings prompt impulse buying.

Even the width of the aisles are carefully planned out for optimized sales.

Selling Pre-Prepared Meals Can Cost Triple The At-Home Meal

A family choosing ready-to-eat meals at a Lenta supermarket
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Grocery stores always stack pre-prepared meals, such as frozen and microwaveable dishes. These foods can help people who feel too busy to cook, but they also cost a lot more than most assume. In 2018, Forbes compared the average cost of homemade meals to pre-made and restaurant meals and found the difference to be staggering.

On average, pre-prepared meals cost three times the amount of a homemade meal, while takeout is five times as expensive. So if an average homemade dish costs $4 (assuming that you don’t cook all of your veggies), a meal kit will cost $12.

Incorporating A Pharmacy Into The Store Means Creating A Wait Time

People wait to pick up prescriptions at a Publix Supermarket pharmacy
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Pharmacies in grocery stores are convenient for consumers and benefit the supermarket in multiple ways. Not only do a portion of the sales go to the store, but pharmacies force people to wait in line. Research demonstrates that the longer people wait, the more likely they are to pick up an extra item.

A 2014 study in Management Science observed how lines impact customer purchases. The researchers concluded that “waiting and price sensitivity are negatively correlated,” so the more time you spend waiting, the less you care about price tags. Adding pharmacies and cafes in supermarkets stimulate this behavior.

The Aisles Are Just Wide Enough To Trick You

A woman buys wine across from the empty water shelf in a supermarket in Riverview, Florida

Although you’ve probably never thought about the width of supermarket aisles, marketers have. Psychologist David Lewis has analyzed consumer decisions for over 15 years, and claims that the width of the aisles are “planned so that you are prevented from bumping into other people, but aren’t so wide that you can’t get your hands on products.”

If a grocery store is too crowded, people will limit their time spent there. But opening up the aisles, grocers encourage people to linger and explore the shelves. “Remember that a supermarket is a bit like a machine,” Lewis states; “its mission is to get you to spend.”