If you’ve ever entered a grocery store thinking you’ll “just grab a few things” only to exit with a foot-long receipt in your hands, wondering, “What just happened?” we totally get it. It’s easy to fall victim to the sales, the samples and the bulk options at the supermarket. The truth is, as a consumer you’re often being tricked into your purchases.
We broke down the subtle ways grocery stores persuade buyers to purchase more ― and to help combat them, we’ve got tips on how to navigate the supermarket better.
From playing specific music to offering free samples, here are five ways your grocery store might be pulling one over on you.
Many articles about the influence of music at the grocery store reference a study published in 1982 in the Journal of Marketing. Researcher Ronald E. Milliman found that the average gross sales at the U.S. grocery store chosen for the study were higher when the store played slow-tempo music compared to when it played fast-tempo music. Milliman clarified at the end of the study that more research should be done before reaching a more definitive conclusion, and said the specific numbers matter less than the idea that music can influence behavior.
Bauer Media Group’s Life Hacks magazine encouraged readers this spring to wear headphones and listen to “up-tempo music” while shopping to cut down on spontaneous purchases. However, based on a 2014 field experiment, researchers in Norway and Germany found that in six grocery convenience stores, music with “an up-tempo beat” actually “spurred spending” ― when the stores were crowded.
How to deal: The important part is to recognize how the music affects you. If having headphones on distracts you from the free samples and the displays with sales signs, that might be better for you. If you’re into the signature slow music at your local store and it keeps you on track, go with that.
Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and author of The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, put it best: “Once you’re aware of these tricks, you’re more likely to think of it when making the purchases.”
The products near the checkout
When you’re done shopping, waiting in line to buy your items usually means also coming face-to-face with several more products to purchase. In many cases, those checkout lane options include unhealthy picks like candy and sodas. It’s hard not to get sabotaged when your patience is already thin.
“Grocery stores place the candy, soda, chips, etc. near the checkout line,” said Elana Paddock, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “It’s in your face (and your kids’ faces) for a quick grab, a mindless choice at the end of your shopping trip. Beware of this trap!”
How to deal: Paddock suggested reading a magazine to distract yourself. You can even involve the kids, too.
Paddock pointed out that the pricier items are often stocked at eye level or at the end of the aisles.
“Grocery stores make these foods more visible to make more money,” she said.
You’ll also likely run into products that are “on sale” or that can be bought in bulk, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting a better deal. It’s worth keeping in mind what you’ll actually use and paying attention to which products might go bad quickly.
How to deal: Paddock put it simply: “Check prices.” Another pro tip is to avoid large shopping carts if you can, opting for a smaller cart or a hand basket.
“Bigger shopping carts influence how much you buy,” Paddock said.
In 2017, researchers from three universities confirmed that in-store product samplings led to both immediate sales as well as loyalty, and therefore long-term sales.
“Retailers prefer sampling events to price-based promotions, such as coupons or temporary price reductions, because these events encourage consumers to try a product and build loyalty that won’t disappear once the price goes back up,” said Qing Liu, an associate professor in marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who contributed to the study.
In 2014, The Atlantic suggested in a piece on Costco samples that the free offerings can trigger cravings and lead to better sales.
How to deal: Don’t shop hungry.
“Always go to the store after a meal or grab a quick snack, such as almonds, even if it’s right before you walk through the front door,” Paddock said. “If you’re hungry, chances are you will buy more food and be more tempted to buy fewer healthy items.”
The store setup
Paddock noted that many grocery stores have their meat and dairy products in the back, forcing you to walk through the rest of the store to get them.
“This may mean you put more in your cart (items you may or may not need) and spend more money overall,” she said.
How to deal: Sharot suggested knowing what you want to buy (and what you want to avoid!) ahead of time so you’re not aimlessly looking at other products ― and probably purchasing them.