12 Psychological Tricks of the Supermarket Trade

As 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. Find out how supermarkets get consumers to play by their rules.

By: Troy Johnson

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Supermarket Trickery

Our friendly grocers are just honest businesspeople trying to sell some food. We would never accuse them of Jedi mind tricks. OK, 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 them tick. Here are a few tricks of the trade that you might take into consideration on your next trip to the market.

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 her current environment is through it. Instead of killing you, grocers 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 is so welcoming: "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 knock over grandparents and small children for a taste? The bakery serves the same purpose. The grocer stimulates your appetite with one of 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 of 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: When humans are put in charge of a hole, they 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 items. 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? It's put at thigh level, which is eye level for your kiddo, who is now struck with a desperate, loud and 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.

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