Twenty-two ways supermarkets trick you into spending more money

Supermarkets bombard customers with all manner of psychological devices and tricks

Supermarkets are happy to spend a lot of money working out the best ways to get us to spend ours. Photograph: iStock

Supermarkets are happy to spend a lot of money working out the best ways to get us to spend ours. Photograph: iStock

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Supermarkets are happy to spend a lot of money working out the best ways to get us to spend ours and they have been doing it in this country almost since they were born way back in the 1950s.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

From the moment you pull into a parking space on the way to pick up a few bits to the moment you drive away with a car full of stuff you did not really intend to buy at all you most likely have been bombarded with all manner of psychological devices and tricks artfully deployed to ensure someone gets the best out of your shopping experience.

That someone is not always you.

1. Big retail chains do not like to give stuff away, except when it comes to parking spaces. They will fall over themselves to make room for your car at no cost because they know that if you can find a place to park without having to worry about racking up charges you are likely to be more relaxed when you are wandering the aisles. And they know that a relaxed shopper is a spendier one.

2. Some shops are designed a bit like the Hotel California in that they are easy to enter and almost impossible to leave. That is not an accident. Shoppers are channelled through one door which only opens inwards so they can’t go back out the way they came. The only way out once they past a point of no return is to pass through the tills but all the checkout lanes not in use are blocked off. That means that if you go into a shop and then decide you don’t actually want anything the options are to either limbo under or climb over the barriers at the closed checkout lanes or barge past people in the queue – tricky enough in these socially distanced times. The other alternative is to surrender and buy something and then queue to pay for it like everything else.

3. In virtually every supermarket in the world, the first thing you see when you walk through the doors is the brightly coloured fruit and vegetables and the freshly cut flowers. After that you will be greeted by the bread. There are a couple of reasons for this. For a start, the brightly coloured displays and the scent of the flowers improve out moods – sometimes this improvement is imperceptible but every tiny shift counts. When we are in better form we tend to spend more money. The aromas from the fresh food and freshly baked bread – or the artificially generated aromas oftentimes – will make us just that little bit hungrier than we might have been. And if we are hungrier we will spend more money. There is a third reason. When we put the healthy food in the trolley at the beginning of our shopping journey we are more likely to put the less healthy but perhaps more expensive food in the trolley later in our shop.

4. Speaking of trolleys, you might have noticed they’ve been getting bigger in recent years. The boffins who work so hard to shape our shopping experiences to their employers advantage know that when trolleys are bigger we put more stuff in them. If they increase the size of a shopping trolley by 100 per cent, people will buy 20 per cent more – that is why the average size of a trolley in the US has doubled over the last 20 years. There is more to the science of carrying than that mind you. Around three-quarters of the people who pick up a basket will definitely buy something in a supermarket compared with less than one-third of those who wander the aisles with their hands free. Oh and people who use the deep plastic containers with wheels instead of a humble basket will spend more money.

5. Staying with trolleys for just a few seconds longer, have you ever noticed the wheels of your trolley jarring slightly as they pass over the odd ridge in a supermarket floor? Those ridges are not there because the supermarket employed a dodgy tradesman to lay their floors. They are there to slow you down. The supermarket scientists know that when the flooring is completely smooth people shop faster but by doing something as simple as putting a few bumps in our road, we are inclined to ease back ever so slightly.

6. Many supermarkets have dispensed with windows. Like Las Vegas casinos they don’t really want people to be aware of the outside world or the fact that you went into the shop in blazing sunshine and now it is dark and you are still only half way through your shop. It should also be noted that building an ugly, windowless block of a supermarket out of wood and concrete and corrugated iron is much cheaper than building something nice looking with fancy things like windows.

7. The staples almost everyone buys are never close together. The meat will be in one corner of the shop, the vegetables and bread in another and then, in the far off distance you will see the dairy section while miles further along the road lie the cleaning products. The thinking is that if they can space out the stuff that they know the vast majority of shoppers will put into their now ludicrously outsized trolley then there are more opportunities to tempt those shoppers to buy things the most likely don’t really need.

8. Frequently reconfiguring a supermarket’s layout is not an accident it is a design. Occasionally moving the things we like to buy means we have to work harder to find them and spend more time walking aisles we might otherwise be happy to ignore. The greatest offender is the humble egg. They move around the shop floor so often you might be forgiven for thinking they were about to hatch. They are ideal for the cunning shopkeeper because they know we will keep looking for them until we find them and they neither take up too much display space or have to be refrigerated.

9. The dairy section is also deployed as a weapon in the war on our wallets. Dairy products are almost always at the very back of the shop. This is sometimes because loading bays are at the back of the shop, so by putting dairy close to there it means it has to travel shorter distances between trucks and refrigerators. That makes sense. But the other reason you see the milk and butter as far from the front door as possible is because they are known as “destination items”. They are the products you go into the shops for and the ones you need to go into the shops for most frequently. By positioning them at the back of the shop you have no choice but to walk all the way through the shop and past things you might be tempted to buy.

10. We know that retailers like to waft the – sometimes real, sometimes fake – smell of freshly baking bread through the air-conditioning system. But there is more going on than that these days. There are smells created in labs that can burst from an actual product when you open it that will create the impression the product is better than it might be. It is possible, for example, to make instant coffee smell like a high end coffee shop at the precise moment the jar is just opened. The smell quickly disappears obviously. But the first impression has been made and it is a good one.

11. Sometimes the tricks don’t even have to be all that clever. Retailers know that shoppers like stickers and tend to connect them to bargains. They also know that some colours work better than others. So if we see a big red sticker with a price on it and the suggestion that we are getting a deal we are more inclined to buy it over a possibly better value product that is stickerless beside it. Bear that in mind next time you see a sticker telling you that X product is “Now only €2.99” or whatever. Unless you can see a before discount and after discount price then you are probably not getting the bargain you think you are.

12. And even if you see a product that is promising you a substantial discount then you should always be a bit wary. If a retailer has crossed out one price and replaced it with a cheaper one, then whatever they are selling must have been on sale in the same shop, or a significant number of outlets in the case of a chain, at the higher price “for a reasonable time”. Sadly, when the people who wrote the law were writing it, they forgot to include any definition of what a “reasonable time” is, which is not very helpful.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission says a product “should only be advertised as a discounted price for the same amount of time as it was available at the previous higher price”. This would stop a supermarket upping price of a certain product from €5 to €20 for one day and then putting it on “sale” at €10 for three months. They can, however, stock a single bottle of a particular wine at €30 for a month and then flood the shop with the same wine with a price of €15 and claim it is a half-price sale. And does it matter if the wine is only worth a tenner? Sadly not.

13. Supermarkets know shoppers tend to reach for products when they are placed at eye level on our supermarket shelves. It is probably a coincidence that eye level is where they tend to position the most expensive products, right? Supermarkets win on the double because they also charge suppliers more for better positioning and those charges get passed on to shoppers. So it is us who we end up paying a premium so we don’t have to bend down or reach up for our products. We have never actually tried the following but we have a sneaking suspicion that if we were to only chose products from the top shelf and the bottom shelf the cost of our supermarket shop would fall.

14. Have you ever wondered why the conveyor belts at the tills in your local market are getting longer? It is most notable in an Aldi or a Lidl. We have heard suggestions that this is because we believe our queuing is at an end when we start loading our stuff on to the belt, even if the shopping of four other people is sitting in mountains ahead of us on the same belt. We have put this to the discounters on more than one occasions and they deny this. But then they wouldn’t be secrets if they told us about them now would they?

15. There is also a reason the corridors supermarkets push us through as we get ready to pay are narrow and empty of shelf space. Retailers don’t want to make it easy for us to discard things we decide, on mature reflection, we don’t need as we wait in line. But if we can’t find anywhere to dump the stuff we now longer want then there is a good chance are we will just end up buying it.

16. Retailers love it when we buy more – and bigger – multipacks. That is not because they love offering us the best value – despite what they will tell you – but because they want everyone to consume more. If a six-pack of a fizzy drink becomes a 12-pack people will drink considerably more of it because it is in the house. If you buy a bag of 12 packets of Tayto you are going to eat more Tayto than you probably should – and we say that as big fans of Tayto..

17. It is a fact that people who chose two-for one deals buy more than they intend to. There are stats which show that this very simple offer so beloved of supermarkets will see sales jump by as much as 150 per cent.

18. Many good supermarkets – led by the late Feargal Quinn in Superquinn a long, long time ago – got have got rid of the sweets at the checkouts. They did this to reduce the impact of pester power and to take a bit of pressure of parents who were rarely delighted to have sweets within easy reach of small hands at the end of a long tiring shopping journey. Next time you are in the shops look at the stock closest to the tills. You will see a lot of glossy magazines and gadgets – stuff you don’t need but might buy because you are bored with all the queueing.

19. You know the way the chocolate – and the booze – aisles are always near the end of the route the supermarket wants you to take through their shop? The shops know that by that point in your supermarket sweep you are most likely tired and tired of shopping and more inclined to reward yourself with treats. The best way to combat this – and many of their other tricks – is to reverse the direction of your shop. So start with an empty trolley at the booze and treat aisle and finish at the fruit and vegetables. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes. Apart from anything else you might be reluctant to have four bottles of wine an a multi-pack of Maltesers as the first things in your trolley.

20. Oh, and if you ever find yourself in a drinks section that looks markedly different to the rest of the shop – maybe with wooden floors and softer lighting and autumnal colours there is a reason for that too. It is the retailers attempt to create a sense of occasion, to hint – in a subtle fashion – that you are no longer in a grotty supermarket but in a lovely country house or a private member’s club and, as a result, less likely to question the prices you are being asked to pay for the wine or whiskey.

21. Loyalty cards have their place but they will rarely actually save you money. By signing up to a loyalty scheme you give your chosen supermarket a vast amount of information about you which they can use to draw a terrifyingly accurate picture of who you are and what you like. That is grand if you are getting discounts on things you want but many such schemes try and offer people discounts on products they rarely buy to make the schemes seem better than they are. Oh, and as many as 50 per cent of us spend more in a shop once we have a loyalty card under the mistaken belief that the more we spend the more we will save.

22. Supermarkets are very good at making us behave in ways that work to their benefit without us even realising it. One of the key tricks is price anchoring. This sees a retailer place three similar products side by side on a shelf with three very different price points of, for example, €2, €5 and €9. Most shoppers will avoid the cheapest and the dearest option and go for the middle option. It may be that that is the best value for money. But equally we could be being manipulated into spending more than we need to and thinking we are getting value by not spending as much as we could.