• Peter Alton

The Psychology of Supermarkets

Updated: Aug 13

Do you ever visit your local supermarket and end up spending more than you were budgeting for? This is no accident; supermarkets actually have several different strategies to manipulate sales in store.


As you enter the door you may smell freshly baked bread or rotisserie chicken roasting in the deli area. This is purely to get your salivary glands working and to get your brain thinking food. A hungry shopper will always spend more in store.


You will generally find the fresh produce department at the front of the store. This is because the bright colours of the fruit and vegetables are visually exciting which puts you in a good mood and makes you more receptive to the shopping experience. Also by putting healthy fruit and vegetables towards the front of the store means that you are less likely to feel guilty about purchasing the less healthy foods you may find further inside.


The background music which may seem incidental is often pre-planned. Many supermarkets play music with a rhythm that’s much slower than the average heartbeat, making you slow down and spend more time shopping.


Some supermarkets use smaller floor tiles in some areas. This creates a noise from the wheels if you push the trolley too fast therefore encouraging customers to slow down and take more notice of the items on display in this area.


You may have also noticed that shopping trollies seem to be getting bigger… they are! A bigger shopping trolley will psychologically make shoppers add more items resulting in increased sales.


Stores will quite often locate essential items at the back of the store and far away from each other so you have to look for them. Milk, Eggs and Bread are routinely spread across the store encouraging shoppers to roam and purchase more items on the way.


The way the shelves are laid out can also influence your purchases.  More expensive products are generally displayed at eye level with the cheaper products on lower or higher shelves which are not as easy to find in a hurry. The more expensive items are also at the eye level of kids sitting in a trolley so that they can reach out and grab their favourite cereal or treat making their parents more likely to make a purchase.


Complimentary pairing can also be found throughout the store. If you are shopping for tea you will no doubt find the biscuits nearby. If you are thinking of buying cooked meats you are sure to find ready-made coleslaw and potato salad nearby.


The famous supermarket deal may also be misleading and on some levels it could even be said to be deceptive. You may have seen various offers offering 50% off the price of a 200g pack of cheese. This label more often than not would be placed between the 200g and 400g packs. They are relying on customers grabbing the bigger pack which is not on promotion in error and gaining an extra sale.


Buy one and get the second one at 50% off deals are not that good value. In reality you are only getting a 25% discount on a product that will undoubtedly be reduced to 50% off at a later date. BOGOF deals as they are more commonly known are often the worst, with some supermarkets raising the price of items prior to the deal. This makes it look like the consumer is getting a real bargain but in reality the saving can be quite low.


Some multi-buy offers are not really offers at all. You are told that you can buy 3 items for £3 which sounds like a good deal. However if you look at the individual price you may find the item is £1. You may not be losing money but you are buying 2 more items than you originally intended,


Consumers often assume bulk items will be cheaper than smaller packs of the same product. Retailers may offer a 500g tub of spread which you would automatically assume to be cheaper than buying 2 x 250g tubs. This is not always the case and it can be difficult to check the weight-to-price ratio as they may label one product in pence by kilo and the other in pence per 100g.


The same is often the case with fresh produce. Prepacked fruit and vegetables are often priced per item while the loose produce will be priced per kilo or gram.


Brightly coloured labels may often draw your eye to store offers but these items may well have been the same price for the previous 6 months so they are not really offers at all.


Own label brands are often much cheaper but you will find the packaging is much less appealing. This is done on purpose to encourage you to buy the more ascetically pleasing more expensive brands.


Even at the checkout the supermarkets have their tricks with eye catching last minute items placed handily to attract you whilst unloading your trolley. Over the years the checkout lanes have become narrower, with less space outside of the conveyor belt. This is by design as 60% of shoppers off-load products as they unload them from their trolley, which means it’s harder to ditch goods at the last minute. Less space means it’s harder to ditch goods at the last minute.


Store cards are not exempt. You may think the store cards are there to encourage you to shop with a certain retailer. To a certain extent they are but they are also there to track your spending habits. The cards give stores valuable consumer data but they also give them the chance to give you vouchers tailored to your shopping history. If you have not brought a certain product in store for a while the retailer may give you a voucher to tempt you back hopefully taking the sale away from a competitor.


Supermarket stock that doesn’t sell prior to its best before date gets reduced. Theses can therefore be genuine bargains. Only these bargains aren’t nicely signposted and can be hard to find. A lot of these products can be frozen so you won’t have to use them straight away.


80% of shoppers buy the same range of products week in week out. Therefore the sensible way to shop is to keep a track of the pricing for the key items you buy. When you see a genuine deal buy a few weeks’ worth then you can be sure you are actually saving money. Be sure to check the best before date or that you can freeze any extra products you purchase otherwise that bargain could become an expensive mistake.


Shopping does not need to be a stressful experience. Keep your eyes and ears open. Look around, check prices, check promotions and ask yourself why is this on offer? Suppliers pay heavily to get promoted in store so there must be a reason for the offer. Most offers are to generate sales by increasing the volume sold. Other deals are to clear stock or to promote a new product that has appeared in the range or a totally new product for the trade. These may often be the best deals because they are tempting you with an offer in the hope this product will become one of your regular shopping items when the price rises at the end of the promotion.




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