How Supermarkets Trick You Into Spending More
The multi-layer psychology of grocery shopping
The multi-layer psychology of grocery shopping
Supermarkets are designed like casinos to keep you inside: No windows, fluorescent lights, one way in, one way out. How many times do you go to get “just a couple of things” and leave with three times as many items as you intended? This is not a coincidence.
Every seemingly arbitrary detail in a supermarket is the result of a precise, calculated move, designed to exploit human psychology. No wonder we are powerless. As a marketing professional, I decided to investigate these invisible sales tactics. Here are the many layers of super-marketing (get it?)
The Layout Is Intentional
My supermarket OCD is so strong that I can’t shop in some stores because their layout is so disjointed, it breaks my brain.
The last time I went to Aldi, more than a decade ago, I walked through the front door, straight into the tea, coffee and biscuits aisle. It was madness I tell you. You couldn’t drag me back.
For all supermarkets, essentials like milk, bread, cereal, and eggs are always spread out in-store to ensure you have to walk the entire length of the Supermarket to get it all. As you do so, you’ll be exposed to all the other products and amazing offers.
Fruits and veggies at the front. Alcohol at the back.
The layout is an exact science. Supermarkets often have healthier things towards the front of the store and unhealthy items further on.
This allows you to fill your cart with some fresh greens, so you don’t feel guilty about throwing in two pizzas a few aisles later. True story.
No One Store Is the Same
Even if you get used to shopping with one supermarket brand, you’ll find that the in-store layouts are different from location to location.
Each town, city, village, or county has a different layout from the next. This ensures, if you’re going to a different store in the same chain, you can’t map-out your route ahead of going inside, exposing you again, to all of the offers and promotions that maximize your spending as you navigate the store.
Thank You, Captain Obvious
This one is obvious, but I can’t leave it out, or you’ll assume I’m not a credible and thorough individual. Of course, I’m talking about promotions, multi-buys, and discounted offers. These include:
Two for one
Buy one get one free
Three for two
+ other less popular variations
These offers are so prevalent that a study conducted by IRI found that 54.6% of all goods sold in UK supermarkets were sold on promotion.
This is true for all retail stores, but supermarkets are clearly the experts at merchandising products. The best-sellers are at eye-level and each “end-of-aisle” display is packed with offers, reduced food, or new listings.
These placements are so effective in-store, vendors are charged to get featured here.
When working for an FMCG corporation in the past, we were quoted £40,000 (almost $50,000) to put our product on the end of the aisle in Tesco stores. So not only do they collect extra revenue from wholesale margins and consignment deals, but they get their vendors to pay for shelf space around the store.
Bigger Trolleys/Shopping Carts
Martin Lindstrom, a marketing consultant told Today that in an experiment that doubled the size of a shopping cart, it made shoppers buy 40% more merchandise. For your wallet, bigger is definitely not better
Odd Pricing Drives Sales
Given that over half the goods sold are sold on promotion, this isn’t chance or circumstance. Those promotions are an intentional tool to get us to spend more, but people never consider how they’re manipulated to look even more attractive with odd unit pricing.
Let me explain…
You see a three for two offer. It costs $2 for one, $4 for two, and $4 for three.
The three for two offer forces the perceived unit price for each unit beneath the cost of just buying one by such a considerable margin, that it’s worth buying more. A simpler example would be one for $1.50 but two for $2. An extra third of the initial unit cost will get you double product. Bargain! It’s impossible to resist.
These promotions don’t exist on heavier consumables like detergent, because nobody needs to buy and carry three boxes of detergent at once. Instead, they focus on higher-margin, edible, consumable items, like soda, chocolate, ready-meals, cakes, etc.
I’ve harnessed the power of this pricing structure before by selling playing cards for £4.50(GBP) for one deck, or two decks for £5. It works to increase average order value and shift more volume.
Each checkout queue is adorned with last-minute offers. Chocolate bars, candy, soda, magazines, essentials like batteries and gift cards for that person who’s birthday you just forgot.
Psychologically, you’ve made the commitment to buy so much already, that throwing in a cheap, last-minute item is less of a considered decision. Hence the name “impulse buys.” These upsells also exploit tired parents, as they’re already tired from shopping, they’re more likely to give in to pressure from kids to buy a pack of Skittles.
The Only Way to Leave Is Through the Checkout
Have you ever left your wallet in the car and realized the only way out, once in, is through the checkouts? You are preconditioned to buy something every single time. Psychologically you’re made to feel like the only way out is to spend money.
This ensures you can’t “window shop” and it keeps the opportunistic-shoplifter from attempting a “grab and go” too. Supermarkets want buyers, not browsers.
Not This Far, Surely?
How often do you notice the ambient music in Supermarkets or malls? This one area has been extensively researched to see what kinds of music increase sales and keep customers shopping for longer. To be diving into this level of minutiae, it shows the lengths stores will go to, to spin a profit.
In one study conducted by North, Hargreaves, and McKendrick (1999), they found that themed music influenced wine purchases. Researchers played music which would be assumed to be either French or German on alternate days around the shelves of products in a wine shop. On days when French-style music was played, shoppers would purchase more French wine from the shop. Alternatively, sales of German wine increased on days where German music was played.
“An attack on the senses”
However, it doesn’t end there. The entire shopping experience is now an attack on the senses. Most supermarkets now have an in-store bakery to promote freshness with scent and our palates are spoiled with free samples of newer items.
Even so, I can’t be mad at them. The relationship is symbiotic, despite the layers of deception, we need supermarkets as much as they need us, for survival. Perhaps, as marketers, we can learn something from them. About making the process of selling, an actual experience. Not just an opportunity.