Have you ever gone into your grocery store just to pick up a head of broccoli and walked out with a cart full of snack foods? It’s happened to all of us, and it’s no accident on the supermarket’s part. The way these stores are organized and the strategies they use for getting you to buy specific items are designed to get you to spend more money, and usually not on the healthiest foods.
If you’re trying to eat as healthfully as possible and keep your budget in check, what tricks should you be on the lookout for? Here are the top ways your supermarket uses consumer psychology to influence your purchases and your health.
Before you even walk in the store, supermarkets have you set up to buy things you don’t need. Shopping carts are getting bigger, a deliberate increase: The larger your cart, the more likely you are to impulse-purchase foods to fill it up.
Once you’re set up with an oversize cart and walk in the door, you’ll be greeted with an arrangement of seasonal items: frosted cookies in December, chocolate bunnies in April — you name it. These items act as a speed bump, getting you to slow down and contemplate which treats you might need for upcoming holidays (or to treat yourself). Even if you don’t buy these items immediately, the supermarket has put them on your mind. You’ll find them placed throughout the store, making it easy for you to grab the cookies or candy you’ve been thinking about since you walked in.
Move past the seasonal treats and you’ll find yourself in the produce section. Produce is placed first in your path not to encourage you to buy more of it, but to make you feel super healthy. Once you have healthful options such as fruits and vegetables in your cart, you feel good about what you’re buying. That means you’re more likely to give in to the less healthful products you find throughout the store.
Stores also use “scent marketing” to encourage you to buy certain products. Sometimes those scents go with samples — such as when you can smell sausage cooking from the meat section — and sometimes stores use machines to pump scents such as apple pie or chocolate chip cookies through the air, drawing you toward the bakery section.
The scents from sampling do double duty — they draw you in and encourage you to try the product, and they make you hungry. Once you try a product, you’re much more likely to purchase it. But even if you don’t buy the product being sampled, smelling the food and tasting a tiny bit leaves you wanting more, so you’re more likely to pick up foods that weren’t on your list. How do you avoid giving in? Never go to the store on an empty stomach. Being hungry while shopping always leads to buying things you don’t need — and are not healthful.
Shelves are strategically laid out to sway your purchases. Companies pay top dollar to be placed at eye level, especially when they’re marketing to children. Placing kid-geared (read: sugary and not so healthful) cereals where kids can see them is a major marketing tactic. Manufacturers know that if a child can get attached to a product and beg their parents enough, chances are good that the product will end up in the cart. Get used to saying no to the sugary cereals and offer the healthier options that are typically at an adult’s eye level.
All of the sales tactics that can get you to buy less-nutritious foods also provide opportunities for supermarkets to help you make healthier choices. Placing more nutritious products at eye level or sampling fruits and vegetables can boost their sales.
Some supermarkets have rolled out “Guiding Stars” or other similar programs to help you identify healthful options — and these programs have worked. “Buy one get one free” promotions or huge sales on highly processed foods can trick you into buying them to get a deal, but the same goes for healthful foods. Grocery stores are also using savings programs to encourage shopping for healthful products, because great value sells incredibly well.
When you’re done shopping, there’s one more place that supermarkets can trick you: the checkout aisle. They are typically filled with inexpensive snacks, such as candy bars and chips. Supermarkets bank on you buying these things impulsively to snack on in the car. The good news is that some grocery stores are now providing more healthful snack options at their checkouts. Shop in those checkout lanes (they’re usually marked) and opt for fruit and nuts that are kept in stock.
My best advice for staying on track while grocery shopping? Plan your meals for the week, write out a list of healthful items and stick to it.