11 Psychological Tricks of the Supermarket Trade

by in Shows, December 8th, 2013

11 Psychological Tricks of the Supermarket TradeAs we’ve seen in Guy’s Grocery Games, navigating a grocery store is not an easy feat. You go in for milk and leave with six bottles of wine (on sale!) and a bag of chips. Our friendly grocers are just honest businesspeople trying to sell some food. We would never accuse them of Jedi mind tricks.

Okay, yes we would. No consumer arena has been as psychoanalyzed as much as the grocery store. Like any responsible business owner, grocers have studied their consumers and learned what makes us tick. Often referred to as “the racetrack,” a grocery store is designed to get you into the “track” and make you go as slowly as possible through every aisle. Most of the major products have been strategically placed to maximize your time and money spent.

Here are a few tricks of the trade:

1. Locked Door Behind You: Grocery store doors are usually one-way. Once inside, you’ll have to walk past a few special offers to find the exit. It’s like when the frail, screaming victim in a horror movie realizes the only way out of their current environment is through it. Instead of killing you, grocery stores just want to sell you some Oreos.

2. Fresh Cuts: Neil Diamond doesn’t bring you flowers? Forget him. The grocery store greets you with hundreds. First impressions are important and the bucket garden of tulips right inside the front door says, “You’ve come to a fresh place of earthy joy.” There’s also a theory that sensory stimulation overwhelms us. It fries our mental motherboard and makes us more susceptible to impulse buys.

3. Dollars and Scents: Speaking of stimulation — know how when you get within 10 square miles of an American airport or mall, you can smell the kiosk selling cinnamon rolls? And how you would now knock over grandparents and small children for a taste? The bakery serves the same purpose. The grocer stimulates your appetite with one the world’s most primal intoxicants: the smell of baked bread. It urges you to shop with your stomach, not your budget-conscious brain.

4. Got Milk?: Remember in the ’80s when, as an aspiring break dancer, you signed up for the free boom box? All you and your legal guardian had to do was sit through a six-hour sales pitch on time-shares in Mexico. Same concept. You really wanted that boom box, and we all really want milk. Grocers are willing to give it to you, but only after they walk you through their entire sales pitch.

5. Center Stage: The center aisles with the name-brand goods are the most profitable. That’s why items necessary for life — like cereal and coffee — are placed in a middle aisle. And they’re often in the middle of that middle aisle. That way, no matter which direction you come from, you’ll be exposed to a half-aisle of stuff you didn’t know you needed until right now.

6. Shuffle the Deck: Face it. Most of us go back to the store for the same 10 items every few days. Doing so, we could easily develop our own “route” through the store and set autopilot when we enter the door. That’s why grocers shuffle the deck. The crate where the apples have been for the last couple months? Now seasonal blueberries for $50 a box (two for $80!).

7. Fill ‘Er Up!: Aside from those planning for a zombie apocalypse, very few people need a shopping cart that large. But here’s the thing. If humans are put in charge of a hole, we have a psychological need to fill it. That’s why the shopping cart has doubled in size and those little carry baskets are intentionally hard to find.

8. The Right Stuff: Americans “read” the world left to right. Our eyes are always leaning to the right side, or toward the natural progression of the “story.” So that’s where supermarkets often put the items you’re most likely to buy.

9. Eye Bombing: Not that we’re lazy people, but we are. We buy mostly what’s at eye level, so that’s where grocers put their high-profit margin stuff. The bulk economy foods are almost always on the bottom shelf, next to the boxed wine. Any cereal with a cartoon character who looks stricken with emotional issues? They’re put at thigh-level, which is eye level for your kiddo, who is now struck with a desperate, loud, crying need for sugar-spackled grains.

10. Freebies!: People come into the supermarket “on a mission.” It’s in the grocer’s best interest to encourage you to slow down, hang out awhile. Pausing for free nibbles helps. It also whets your appetite.

11. Make It Rain: How convenient. They let you put money into your pocket as soon as you walk in the door. And now that you’re so terribly wealthy, you may as well splurge on that gourmet bottle of olive oil.

12. Tuning In: Studies show that you slow down and take your time when you hear music. Speed metal is out, Air Supply is in. Let’s slow dance.

Bonus: As for that screaming child blocking the aisle with his tantrum, making you stop by the really expensive imported foodstuffs? A paid actor.***

*** This one is a complete lie. We just made it up. That’s how lies work.

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Comments (9)

  1. Guest says:

    FYI center store aisles are by far the least profitable.

  2. guest says:

    Where does thus "psychological" information come from? If it comes from research or interviews, why not cute the source(s) even a little? And if it doesn't, why should anyone trust or care about it? Why does the Food Channel feel the need to be so deceptive about blogs and series? Mystery Diners is obviously (and ridiculously) a sham. It's pathetic. It's a great deal more egregious an ethical violation than this under-sourced blog, but it feels all of the same attitude: The viewer us treated like a schmuck.

  3. slapchopped says:

    #4 doesn't apply everywhere as SOME chains actually do put the convenience dairy/cold products in the front. #7 also depends as most chains have both the regular carts and the smaller shopping carts.

  4. guest says:

    Fyi, do any of you work in a grocery store? No? Then shut it. You don't know how it works. I've been in this business for 8 years….

    • greg says:

      You are a moron. There is hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in marketing regarding product placement, hiding staples, and marketing psychology. A simple Google search would confirm everything in this article and more. This might be why you work in a market, for years…

  5. Epic Fail says:

    I don't how the rest of you are, but I have X number of dollars to spend each month on groceries and a larger than I care to have spare tire from the days when I didn't limit spending to X number of dollars on groceries. I only get what I need no matter what they do to try to get me to buy more. If I were the big stores, I'd worry about how to compete with Aldi in cities where they are located. I buy everything but fresh meats there. Saves me a bundle.

    As for the 'cinnamon kiosks', if I had to work in or around one of them every day, I would be sick of them in 2.

  6. Charley says:

    I've worked for the worlds largest retailer for almost 12 years (yes, I have benefits, including good, affordable, health insurance) The items listed are pretty much true. Most of the main isle features are changed constantly, predominately based on margin, and seasonality. My store is in a state with a large % of food stamp recipients. We know the exact date there checks are deposited, and plan features accordingly. Same for back to school. A fairly large university is less the 5 miles away. Back to school season is critical to the bottom line. Its not just the big boxes that do this. All grocery stores do this. If any retailer fails to respond to there customer base they usually fail.

  7. curiosity says:

    An important motive that is apparently inborn or learned early without formal training is curiosity. As early as 1881 it was observed that monkeys would tirelessly investigate their surroundings and manipulate any new object, although no reward was to be gained except the sheer fun of it. One monkey worked for two hours (unsuccessfully) trying to open the lock of a trunk in which nuts were stored, although a plentiful supply of nuts was within easy reach (Romanes, 1881).

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