Supermarket psychology: how shops convince you to spend

Supermarkets aren’t just rooms full of stuff for us to buy, they’ve been carefully designed to make you buy more

Google "how many decisions do we make every day" and the number 35,000 pops up repeatedly. How can that be? No wonder we're all exhausted. In a 2006 research paper entitled Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink and Jeffery Sobal of Cornell University discovered that people make an average of more than 200 decisions, both thinking and unthinking, about food, every day.

In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, author and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores the two systems which help us make decisions, solve problems and process the world around us, commonly known as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, sometimes described as thinking without thinking, while System 2 is a more strategic and slower way of thinking. Each have their place in our modern world.

You can get along just fine with System 1 when brushing your teeth, which doesn’t require deep and profound soul-searching. But it’s undeniable that we sometimes get our systems mixed up, such as when we employ System 1 when making financial decisions (I NEED these exotic mini-aubergines that are €2 a pop, to hell with the consequences) when perhaps a bit of deeper analysis might have served you better.

It could be argued that choosing the right supermarket queue requires System 2 thinking. Like a chess match, committing to the right line to pay for your groceries can have an impact on the rest of your day, ie your next moves. What if you get stuck behind some slow-coach who forgot to weigh their fruit and vegetables, or a shopper who can’t remember the pin code for their bank card? A domino effect of lateness and bad vibes could attach themselves to the rest of your day, if you let it.


So why let it? Why not just go with the flow? Etorre’s Observation is a variation of Murphy’s Law that states, simply yet profoundly, “the other lines moves faster”. Taken literally, it sums up the inherent pointlessness of overthinking your choice of supermarket queue.

Yet at every shopping line I join, I can spot at least one shopper agonising over this decision, when in fact we might be better off applying more strategic awareness before we even get to the end of the process. Supermarkets aren’t just rooms full of stuff for us to buy. I mean, they are, but thanks to retail psychologists and supermarket architects, they’re more than that. They’ve been carefully designed to make you buy more. It’s like the supermarkets are in cahoots with the brands, who use their packaging to scream out to you as you sashay through the carefully calculated aisles, blissfully unaware that you are being engineered into a spending machine.

When I’m shopping for my work as a food stylist, I am diligently focused on my task and rarely get pulled off script. You’d think then that I’d be a pro at shopping for myself, but it’s quite the opposite. I’m a supermarket designer’s dream customer, a System 1 thinker who jumps towards the immediate rewards of a well-designed cheese counter. Feta, ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, goat cheese, cheddar and Philadelphia all came home with me on a recent shopping trip. The week’s ration, I rationalised to myself, like a crazy person. This isn’t sensible weekly shopping and, without applying a more rational analysis before stepping into a supermarket, I’m done for, leaving myself vulnerable to the trappings of supermarket psychology.

The psychology of supermarkets is fascinating, and effective, and I think it's safe to say that it's something that we as consumers are privy to regularly without even noticing. In 2014, Bon Appétit writer Michael Y Park put together a brilliant two-part article delving into this very theme. He pulled together the views of environment psychologists, architects and supermarket designers, nutritionists and efficiency experts to help build a picture of the complex systems at play when we go out for our groceries.

There is the hurdle of being overwhelmed with choice, summed up by efficiency expert Gwynnae Byrd as being “the biggest enemy to efficiency” in shopping, and why we often go in for two things and come out with 20. Ugh, I’ve been there a million times. The piece also goes into the psychology of free samples and the identity politics of supermarkets.

Perhaps most fascinating, it includes the analysis of supermarket layout by environmental psychologist and author Paco Underhill, who explains that supermarket design hasn’t really changed in about 80 years.

Reading his explanation on why you’ll often find fruit and vegetables up front and to the right, followed by meat and seafood while dairy is usually to the back and left, the deepest part of the shop, will make you feel like you have just awoken from the matrix.

So, why is the dairy at the deepest part of the stores, anyway? Underhill says it’s because almost everyone who walks into a supermarket has some sort of dairy on their shopping list, and if it’s in the deepest part of the store, you have to walk past a lot of tantalising goods to get to it. Unless you’re applying a conscious, mindful, System 2 approach to shopping, chances are by the time you get to the crème fraîche you’ll have a whole heap of unexpected and, dare I say, unnecessary, items in your trolly, as if you’ve been sleep-shopping.

To help you prepare for a more conscious approach to grocery shopping, have a good read of the full article to understand the potential trappings of your weekly shop. And, remember, the grass is always greener in the other queue.