Big trolleys and long aisles: sneaky sales techniques

The big retailers have all manner of tricks up their sleeves to persuade us to spend more

1 You know how that little corridor you're funnelled through as you queue to pay for your groceries is always kind of narrow? That's not so the supermarket can fit as many tills into the shop as possible – why would they want to do that when so many of them lie idle all the time? Oh no, the reason there's so little space as you approach the checkout is because retailers don't want to make it easy for you to discard any items that you decide, on mature reflection, you don't need.

The till area is deliberately confined to help your subconscious decide to leave that thing you probably don’t need in your trolley because finding somewhere to leave it is too much hassle.

2 Speaking of hassle, retailers know we're busy people, with scarcely enough time to move our eyeballs up and down as we shop. That is why you always see the most expensive, high-margin products at eye level. If you were to do all your shopping from the top shelves, you'd probably save yourself a fortune.

3 There is an exception to the eye-level rule. If you see big-name brands lower than an adult's eye level, you can be sure the products are high in sugar or aimed at a more youthful market. Sugary children's cereals, pink princess tat, superhero merchandise and all the rest are almost always positioned at a child's eye level.


4 Have you noticed your shopping trolleys have got bigger in recent years? Or have you ever found yourself looking in vain for smaller baskets as you race around your supermarket of choice? That's not an accident. Retailers know that making their trolleys bigger makes us put more in them. A US study found that when retailers increased the size of their shopping trolleys by 100 per cent, people bought 20 per cent more without even noticing it.

5 Most – but not all – responsible retailers have got rid of the sweets at the checkouts. They did this because we cottoned on to the notion that they had been tactically positioned there to put stressed-out parents under pressure from their offspring at the end of a shopping expedition. While the sweets may be gone, they have been replaced by other things. As you queue at the checkout you will see glossy magazines and gadgets and all sorts of other things that are deliberately designed to appeal to shoppers bored senseless by queueing.

6 There are three main reasons all supermarkets put their fresh fruit and vegetables near the door at the beginning of our shopping trip. First, bright colours put us in better form, and when we are in better form we tend to shop with more abandon. Retailers also want to tell us – without actually telling us – that we have entered a palace of freshness, a place where wholesomeness reigns.

Oh yes, and multiple consumer studies have proved that consumers buy more processed foods and high-margin junk foods if they already have a lot of good stuff in their trolleys. Because we have put vegetables in our basket, we feel less guilty about chucking in a few treats.

7 As any 10-a-day smoker who has ever bought a packet of 200 duty-free cigarettes and smoked them in a weekend knows, the more of something you buy, the more of it you will consume. This is why retailers are driving a trend toward more – and bigger – multipacks. If a six-pack of a fizzy drink becomes a 12-pack instead, there's a good chance people who make the switch will drink considerably more of that drink than before.

8 Smart retailers waft the smell of freshly baking bread through the air-conditioning system near their bakery because they know our responses are Pavlovian. When we smell baking bread, we buy more bread, because, at a subconscious level, we think it's going to smell just as good when we get it home. But unless we have air-conditioning wafting fake smells our way in our homes, that is not going to happen.

9 There are two reasons why dairy products are almost always found at the back of a shop. The first is sensible: loading bays, particularly loading bays in big shops, are out the back, so if you put your dairy near there it will have to travel shorter distances between refrigerated trucks and the refrigerators.

The second reason is that milk and butter and the like are “destination items”, the kinds of products that people actually go shopping for as opposed to the stuff they buy on a whim. If retailers place these essential items towards the back of the shop, we have no choice but to walk past all the stuff we might buy on a whim in order to get to them.

10 Loyalty cards are dressed up as consumer-friendly clubs to save us money but make no mistake: their aim is not to reward us but to collect as much information on our habits as possible, then use that information to sell us more stuff. A supermarket, if it uses the information it collects carefully, can tell what you buy and when you buy it, your age, marital status and number of children, if any. It knows where you live, what credit cards you use and what DVDs you like to watch. It even knows the most intimate details of your personal care routine.

In the future, do not be surprised if retailers start using wifi or Bluetooth to work out the precise course you take each time you wander their aisles, and how long you spend gazing at the chocolate or the beer.

11 Two-for-one deals are not the consumer's friend, no matter how they are dressed up by a retailer. Shoppers who notice these deals buy anywhere between 30 and 100 per cent more than they otherwise would have. That's grand if these are goods that we want and that will last. If, however, they are perishable, there is a very good chance they will go off before we get to consume them.

If someone has to throw out unused food, make sure it’s the supermarket and not you.

12 There is a reason supermarkets are designed they way they are. The longer the aisles, the more we spend. A giant supermarket might have between 10,000 and 15,000 items for sale. Most shoppers need to buy less than 10 per cent of what is on offer. All the rest is just padding.

13 How much is a litre of milk? How about a loaf of your favourite bread? Do you know how much a pound of butter will set you back? The vast majority of shoppers know the price of only about four items that they routinely put in their shopping trolleys.

Retailers know this and take advantage of the fact by slapping all manner of garish stickers on products to imply that they are “better value” or “now only €2.99”. If you see a sign that says “now only €2.99”, you should always ask yourself what was it before now? Was it cheaper? Was it dearer?


1 Plan ahead: Work out what you're going to eat and what you need to buy.

2 Make lists and stick to them.

3 Cook less food and use communal serving bowls . You'll be amazed the impact this will have on your budget.

4 Keep your eyes peeled for genuinely special offers and always take advantage of money-off coupons.

5 Resist the urge to buy perishables in bulk unless you can freeze them. Buying three bags of lettuce because you're getting the third one free is not a good idea if that third bag is likely to end up in your bin.

6 When looking for bargains, look for things that are half price. That is where the real savings come in.

7 Switch to own-brand products for at least some of your weekly shop.

8 Speciality stores will help you cut costs. Local greengrocers and butchers are often better value.