Overcoming Grocery Store Tricks and Traps

I was flattered when Kevin responded to my query in a recent post about sharing some of the secrets used by the retail food stores to relieve us of some of our cash. In the real world, it actually does happen. Think of it as grocery store tricks and traps – they use them all the time, and they’re so subtle we might miss them.

Overcoming The Basic Physiological And Psychological Challenges

The layout out a food store is apparently a careful science, based on years of research and observation. There are, of course, the obvious things:

Our natural tendency to follow a pattern. We naturally will turn to our right in entering a store, so departments that are the most pricey will be in that direction. You can save money by reversing your shopping traffic pattern. You might try starting at a middle aisle and work from side-to-side, Or alternate, even hit the odd numbered aisles.

Overcoming Grocery Store Tricks and Traps
Overcoming Grocery Store Tricks and Traps

Notice what you are looking at – as opposed to what you need to find. The less expensive house brands generally are on the lower shelves, but sometimes they are on the harder to reach upper shelves. Eye-level shelves have the products the stores really want to move. Bright packaging stimulates you emotionally, putting you more at risk to impulse buying.

Intentional Misdirection is common. “End caps,” the displays at the end of aisles, are not always bargains. Product distributors pay premium prices to have their wares placed there; you can find the same products cheaper elsewhere. That goes for the “dumps” in the aisles up at front by the check-out stands. And we fall prey to them, telling ourselves, “Well, now I won’t have to look all over for that.”

It’s a myth about milk being in the back of the store so you have to walk through the store to get it. I’ve written of this before, but I was wrong about this one. That’s what I’d always thought, another expert expert explains that milk needs to be refrigerated right away; the trucks unload in the back, so the fridges are at the back of the store so the store can fill the cases as quickly and easily as possible. Makes sense, and I’ll admit I was wrong. Naturally, designers know we “believe” such nonsense and place all manner of roadblocks in our paths to the dairy products.

Avoid the herd mentality. This is a toughie because we’ve all grown into the habit of going to the store when we have time, like the weekends. But shop when the store isn’t as crowded, that way you won’t be buying more just so you can be part of the group. Mondays and Tuesdays are the best. And, of course, leave the kids at home. They may be great scouts but they are more susceptible to flashy advertising and promotional gimmicks. And unhealthy food.

What The Stores Have Done To Trap You

Shopping carts are getting bigger so you’ll put more in them. “We doubled their size as a test, and customers bought 19% more,” explained Martin Lindstrom, marketing consultant and author of Brand-washed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. If you doubt this, visit an independent food store in a small rural town. You’ll find their buggies are not as large as what you will find at Aldi. If you are trying to shop frugally, your purchases will appear paltry in that big, gleaming but mostly empty cart. So, you add a thing or two here and there and feel better about your experience.

More than half of shoppers decide not to buy stuff in the checkout line. The actual percentage is closer to 60%. So the store designers started making checkout lanes narrower with less space to off-load items. All they have are racks of candy and magazines. If you can’t dump it, you might be more likely to go ahead and buy it. Review your purchases before you go to checkout.

Sure, that mist on your fruits and vegetables looks nice. But really it can make them rot faster. Besides, where’s that water coming from? More than likely from an ordinary water hose outlet, not any special reservoir with treated water. And don’t forget to shake off your leafy greens before you get to the checkout — the mist can add to an item’s weight.

We’re all fools for the “10-for-$10” promotion. This is one I’ve gone for many a time. A grocery marketer says, “We’ll take an 89-cent can of tuna and mark it ‘ten for $10,’ 
and instead of buying six cans for 89 cents, people will buy ten for $10.” Who else feels like a sucker? Same goes for those deals where you get 50 cents off an item if you purchase it and four others. Total savings = $5.00 but total cost, likely more than what you’d planned.

There’s a reason that “specialty” bread is in a brown paper bag. The faster the bread goes stale, the sooner you’ll be back at the store to buy more, a former worker says. Put loaves in airtight plastic bags as soon as you get home. And, yeah, I know; carrying that loaf of French bread home in a paper bag makes you feel very Gallic provincial and will impress your neighbors. But it certainly isn’t smart.

What You Can Do

Don’t ever shop without a list! Sure, it’s more convenient to dash in on the way home to pick up a jug of milk or a bottle of ketchup rather than wait until you can see what else you’ve written down . But going into a grocery store without that list leaves you wide open for their gimmicks. Don’t do it!

Wear headphones and listen to upbeat music while you shop. Many stores plant “earworms” by way of slow music, slower than the average heartbeat. That lulls you into spending more time at the store, which then leads to spending about 29% more. That’s if they pipe in music at all. The growing trend is to run very low volume but subliminal suggestions of purchases. A chain store once started using their PA system to pipe in the play-by-play of college football. The energy level was such that consumers were racing around and ignoring many of the traps set by the chain’s marketers. Consequently, once the district managers learned about it, they put a stop to it.

If something is about to expire the next day, ask about getting a discount early. If you see something in the bakery or meat department that’s probably going to get marked down tomorrow, say “Hey, this is expiring tomorrow. Are you going to mark it down?” Sometimes they’ll do it for you right then. Walmart, of course, has their “Ooops” racks of over stocked bakery goods which usually expire the day they are put out. The dating simply means that’s when the product is at its freshest, not that it is going to magically spoil in the next 24 hours.

Also, butchers usually mark down their “specials” daily between 8 and 10 in the morning. My wife reminds me every week to be sure to check for reduced items.

If you need a cake, don’t buy it the day you need it. “We’ll have to give you one from the display case, and those cakes have often been sitting out for a while. If you order in advance, we’ll make the cake for you that day or the night before, and it will be a lot fresher,” — a former cake decorator at a grocery store near Birmingham, Alabama says. Another bakery worker suggests if there’s an item on sale today but you likely won’t need it until a week from Thursday, offer to pay for it today, then come back with the receipt on that day and pick up a fresh item.

Of course there are some other obvious tips: Personal care items (shaving cream, blades, deodorants, shampoos, bath soaps) are usually sold in stores’ “Health and Beauty” sections but you can find them cheaper at discount drug stores or the now ubiquitous “dollar stores”.

Shopping at the Big Box Stores and the Clubs. Buying in bulk is not always the best route, either. Consider how much of a product you will use, and how to store the excess. You might be better off buying just what you need instead of trying to “stock up.”

Price Matching. If you’ve got the ad, challenge a price with evidence of it being lower at a competitor. Rare is there a manage who won’t say, “Sure, you can have it for that.” If they can’t, they’re certain to offer you some kind of substitute. And they know you’ll remember their accommodating you.

What tricks have you discovered in shopping for food? In you experience, are some chains more duplicitous than others? Do you believe being aware of these techniques will make you a wiser shopper?

( Photo by Polycart )

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