7 Spending Traps to Avoid at the Supermarket

Your store's layout, its seasonal aisles and even its simplest displays might be crafty tactics to get you to buy more.

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Outsmart the Store (Before It Outsmarts You)

If you've ever taken "just a quick trip" to the grocery store for a couple of things but ended up ringing up an overflowing cart, you are not alone — or immune. This is exactly what the masterminds behind the design of your supermarket want to happen, and they're constantly studying consumer behavior to sharpen their approach. Learn how to spot their strategies before you fall for them again.

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Shopping at Eye Level

The middle shelf on a tall rack is premium space — some brands might even be paying extra to be right within your eyesight. So these shelves are often stocked with pricier brands that can afford the prime real estate, or the items that the store manager knows will sell and make the most money. Scope options on higher and lower shelves to make sure you score the best deal — or aren't missing a great product you might not have noticed before.

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Shopping from Mid-Aisle Displays

The store didn't plop that giant tower of paper towels in the middle of the cleaning aisle by mistake. "Shoppers are accustomed to thinking larger displays must mean the item is on sale," says Phil Lempert, Food Trends Editor for NBC's Today Show. These displays are new points of entry designed to engage consumers so they spend more time considering the product. Studies show that the more time consumers spend with a product, the more likely they are to buy it. Fight the subliminal pull by searching out the competing brands (even if they're in another aisle) before you put anything in your cart.

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Shopping Not-So-Great Deals

Special signage might imply a sale but not actually mean much (think "hot item!" or "great price!"). And prices ending in ".99" make you think you're getting a bargain — even when you're not. We get it: Comparison shopping and remembering "regular" prices for all your favorite items is challenging. But you can start to beat the store's game by only buying an item when you need it — and not because it appears next to a fancy sign.

When you spot a "two for $X" offer, check the price of a single item to confirm that it's a deal. As for tempting "Buy one, get one free" offers, Lempert points out that it's only worth it if you'll use the food before it expires: "Consumers will buy multiples but then forget about them."

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Shopping at the Checkout Aisle

This hot spot for impulse shopping is packed with items that distract and resemble afterthoughts, from travel-size goods to little splurges such as seasonal candy and magazines. Ignore the items in this aisle unless it's a must-buy item you already had on your shopping list. If you can manage the self-checkout aisle, go for it. "Studies show that self-checkout decreases sales, and most of these lanes do not have impulse items," says Lempert.

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Shopping Seasonal Aisles

Most supermarkets have a section stocked with seasonal items toward the front of the store: You might see holiday decorations next to fresh-cut flowers, or you'll see summer coolers right near packages of soda or beer. These displays are designed to distract consumers and get them to slow down — both triggers for impulse shopping.

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Shopping Premium Brands Only

Many national retailers now feature their own in-house brand, which often adds up to instant savings for the consumer. "It's a no-risk option, usually with a money-back guarantee if you don't like it," says Lempert.

Plus, some stores offer a few different levels of their own store brands — like a generic organic option, for instance. "There's the generic level, which we traditionally categorize as inferior to premium national brands, but many retailers now offer one that's exactly the same as national brands along with a premium brand that might offer imported goods or something that's even better than the national brand," he says. Inspect the shelves and packages more closely and you might find some not-so-hidden gems.

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Shopping with a Cart

Giant carts might feel convenient for family shopping, but they're really just another visual cue to get you to spend more. "When consumers have a cart that's not full, they start wondering if they missed anything," says Lempert. Stick to a basket or a smaller cart when possible.

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