It may come as no surprise that the supermarket chains use their knowledge of consumer behaviour to subtly encourage you to buy more than you intended. According to consumer expert, Paco Underhill, up to two-thirds of our supermarket purchases are spontaneous.

Consider that for a moment: we go in with a few items in mind, and walk out with three times more than this. How can we be so easily convinced to part with our money due to design and fittings alone? Here are 5 ways the supermarket makes us buy more.

1. They make us feel good

The supermarket can be cold, clinical and vast. In order to combat this sense of utility, store designers added colour, texture and mood. When you approach the entrance you’re most likely to see a display of flowers and plants. Flowers make us feel good because they are bright and varied, and make us think of fresh produce and nature. This is the opposite of the utilitarian look, so already the stores are altering your perception before you’re even in the store.

This continues into the store, as we typically enter close to the fresh produce section. The colours are vibrant, the fruit is ripe and the veggies are crisp and fresh. The lighting is chosen to maximise the appearance of the produce, making it appear brighter and fresher than it is under natural light, according to Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.

The produce section is spacious and open, contrasting with the tall aisles that make up the bulk of the floorplan. We are being welcomed in gently and we are not overwhelmed by choice just yet. Below is a great video explaining this subtlety.

2. The smell of fresh bread

Most of the larger supermarkets make fresh bread onsite, and while this might sound more expensive than outsourcing the baking, keeping it in-store has its own benefits. Who isn’t allured by the smell of fresh bread? With our hunger provoked, the supermarket has another win. Instead of shopping for practical reasons, we are shopping for complex biological and emotional reasons that make it more likely that we’ll purchase more. Here’s a fascinating article that discusses this in more detail.

Freshly baked bread

3. They place popular items in strategic places

Navigating the aisles is the least fun part of shopping, and that’s perhaps the reason that the supermarkets encourage you to do it anyway. If all of the popular items were placed for convenience, we’d wander the aisles less often, so the clever minds that inform supermarket giants came up with a solution: make the shopper go to the centre of the aisle. That way, they have to pass as least half an aisle worth of products that they don’t intend to buy. Think coffee, cereals, soft drinks, bread and toilet paper: these common items are more likely to be in the centre of the aisle, surrounded by discretionary items.

Related: What would a sugar tax look like in Australia?

You’ll also notice that the more expensive items are at eye level, with cheaper generic options on the bottom or top shelves. Food that is marketed to kids will be close to their eye level. The strategic placement of retail products is called a planogram, and The Conversation discuss is further here.

Milk is towards the back of the store

4. Dairy gets booted to the back

Most of us get at least one dairy item when we go shopping, and that’s precisely why these items are never conveniently placed at the front of the grocery store. Milk is frequently separated from cheese, yoghurt and butter now, so you need to go to opposite ends of the supermarket in order to tick off your average grocery list. During this navigation, the supermarket has ample opportunity to entice you with new products and sale items. It’s called the boomerang effect, and National Geographic discusses it here.

5. Music increases spending

A rather famous 1982 study on music in supermarkets showed a remarkable effect: background music caused us to spend 34% more time shopping, which translated into an increase in sales. Add to this the absence of windows and clocks and we are suddenly less aware of the time. Supermarkets will select music that appeals to the greatest amount of people without being abrasive to the rest of the shoppers. Have you ever caught yourself singing along in the aisles?

Grocery list

4 ways to outsmart the supermarkets

Regardless of all the supermarket tricks, it’s by no means impossible to simply ignore them all and being aware is the first step. Here’s how to beat the psychology of grocery shopping.

  • The humble grocery list has fallen out of favour with shoppers, but technology can help you bring it back. Here’s an app to help you out, or here are a range of great, printable lists if you prefer hardcopies. You’ll save time as well as money!
  • Eat before you shop. Even if it’s just a snack, making sure you’re not hungry when you enter the store will give those bakery smells less of an impact.
  • Know how much food you want to buy – do you really need a trolley? Will a basket, or even your hands, be enough for your planned purchases?

From foods to insurance, make sure you’re in control and compare providers here

  • Compare prices. This may take a little longer, but supermarkets much have a price per kilo, per 100 grams or per litre. If you would rather save than have a particular brand, take the time to read the displayed labels.

Good luck, and happy savings!


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