Nfld. & Labrador

Instant expert: Survival tips for the savvy supermarket shopper

Ever wonder why you spend more than you planned at the grocery store? Smart shopper Wanita Bates looks at the strategy used by marketers.

Wanita Bates tells us how to outsmart the marketers

The average grocery store has 48,000 items, says Wanita Bates, and the longer you linger in a store, the more you spend. (Wanita Bates)

Grocery shopping is one of those jobs that someone has to do. It is repetitive and regular and for most it's a chore. 

  • Hear the next instalment of Wanita Bates's Instant Expert column Tuesday on your local Morning Show

If you're a grocery store, you love the regularity and you know that job one is to sell product. So you need to get those shoppers in, and to keep them in. 

It's simple: the longer supermarkets can keep you in the store, the more money you are going to spend.

Food shopping has changed over the last couple of decades. We are spoilt for choice. My local supermarket has 48,000 different items.

When the clerk asks me as I cash out, "Did you find everything you're looking for?" I want to say, "How could I? You only have 48,000 things to choose from." 

What makes us tick, and buy

Retailers have grown incredibly savvy with research into consumer behaviour and psychology. They know what makes us tick and what makes us buy.

The book Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom gives you a look into the lengths that retailers will go to part you from your hard earned cash. Lindstrom says his goal is not to tell us to stop buying, because that would be impossible, but it's to help us understand "today's newest hidden persuaders."

Supermarkets are designed to keep shoppers moving in particular patterns. (Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)

Let me give you a bit of background on grocery shopping. Food is our third largest expense, after shelter and transportation.

Statistics Canada reports that in 2014, the average household in Newfoundland and Labrador spent just under $8,500 per household on groceries. That's about $400 dollars over the national average.

Studies show we take a trip to the supermarket anywhere from 74 to 84 times a year. A newspaper article in Britain reports that women spend 95 hours a year food shopping. 

Why so much time? It could have something to do with the 48,000 different items to choose from. 

I probably run in to my local grocery store at least twice but sometimes three and four times a week. I run in to get tea bags, although at the checkout I have a bag of limes, baking soda (because it's on sale), and a box of Jos. Louis's.

American writer Erma Bombeck said, "The odds of going to a store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one."

From the moment that you step through those glass doors the manipulation has begun. Every little thing that grocery stores does is cleverly and meticulously planned out. There's nothing left for chance. 

Coming at all your senses

Welcome to the wonderful world of supermarket psychology, where you're not hit over the head but the gentle persuasion is more like a punch with a velvet glove.

Colours, sounds and smells all come together in a supermarket, with grocers counting on sensory pleasures to help boost sales. (Shutterstock)

What do you see? 

There are bright coloured flowers and lush greenery, and in the produce section there are fat red tomatoes, shiny apples and bright green limes. 

What do you hear? 

It's not headbanger music, its easy listening. I feel more calm and relaxed already. I don't feel like I want to rush out. 

What do you smell? 

Is that bread baking? I also smell those cute little barbecued chickens. In the first few milli-seconds of your visit, your senses are on bust.

Now the supermarket is hoping that with any luck, this is going to flip that switch where your stomach takes over. 

You are also standing in a kind of tropical oasis, but your suitcase has been replaced with a gigantic shopping cart. Lindstrom says that when the size of the shopping cart size increases, consumers spend 40 per cent more.

How grocers guide you through the store

But I think the biggest trick that supermarkets have up their sleeves is how they make us move through the store. Psychologists say that people prefer walking anti-clockwise, that it gives them a more pleasant experience. And if you feel good, you buy more. 

Turn left, says Wanita. You'll save a couple of dollars, at least. (Wanita Bates.)

So for the last two weeks, I've gone against the grain and I move clockwise with my cart. That means I enter the grocery store and I start at the left. 

It also means I am met with a meteor shower of shopping carts coming towards me. I feel like I am in a Star Wars movie, and the shoppers I encounter are giving me the eye.

A retail shopping consultant says that shoppers who move clockwise to the left will spend $2 less per trip on average than a shopper who moves with the herd of shoppers to the right.

In the aisles, take a look at the shelves. When a manufacturer places their product in a grocery store, it's all about location, location, location! The allocation of shelf space is a serious issue in retail business. It is one of the most important tools for attracting customers' attention.

The best place for your product is at eye level, and manufacturers pay a slotting fee to get that prime shelf space. Never, ever buy at eye level. If you want to save money, look down. 

Most grocery stores place their most expensive items at eye level and place the bargain brands on the bottom shelves. Manufacturers pay for this space. This arrangement guides you toward the pricier items, since they're literally right in front of your face.

You can learn a lot from cereal

In a study by the Cornell Food & Brand Lab, researchers watched shoppers buy 40 per cent of the items in their carts from shelves that were within 12 inches of eye level.

Never, ever buy at eye level. If you want to save money, look down

To combat this trick, look up and then look down. If you are aware that the most expensive items are within 12 inches of eye level. Then look somewhere else. 

This rule stands except for when you get to the cereal aisle because those foods that are meant to appeal to kids, so the flashier and more expensive cereals at kids-eye-level. Researchers at Cornell have found that the packaging on kid-targeted cereal is designed so that the cartoon characters on the boxes make eye contact with the little folks passing by. 

Then there are the bumpouts, those displays and shelves that curve or jut out. They catch your eye and they make the merchandise more tempting.

I've seen cookies and tea and mustards and pasta and olive oil bumpouts, and — while not proud to say this — they suck me in every time. I once bought orange honey mustard. What was that about?

Speed bumps for your grocery cart

Supermarkets are organized to slow you down so you'll buy more. The average store contains 73 product displays to stop you in your tracks.

Children's cereal is placed on lower shelves to get their attention, but most other expensive items are strategically placed at eye level. (Wanita Bates)

There's something called adjacency. That's when you go to pick up your box of tea and, if you look down the aisle, what else do you see? Cookies. 

The next thing you know, you have chocolate chip cookies and ginger snaps in your cart. Proximity, your mind (or stomach) and the grocery store have colluded against you.

Another supermarket trick: the dairy department is always located as far away from the front door as possible. So if you nip in to buy eggs or yogurt, cheese or milk, for customers it means that you will have to walk the length of the store, passing bumpouts and other tempting products, just to get there. 

I find dairy is the only aisle where I have to stop and let someone with a cart get by me. It's all the better to slow you down. 

I am always learning at my grocery store. About five years ago, I was going through the cash and the sale was four cans of tomatoes for $5. So, I bought four and when I was checking out, I asked the clerk, "What if I only bought one? What would that cost?" 

The young woman said, "Well, then, it's $1.25 each." 

What! I didn't have to buy four cans to get the sale price. Now that's news you can use. 

Speaking of the checkout, you'll spend about 55 minutes per month in that line at the grocery store, according to a British newspaper report. 

Have you ever seen all the grocery lanes open? No. That's because they want you linger there, to look at the magazines, and the chocolate, and the gum. How many Cherry Blossoms have I bought on my way through the line? I don't even want to guess. 

If you have children, this is the most dangerous place in the grocery store.

They are, indeed, the direct target. The items placed here are called Pester Power Items. Or as I like to refer to it, nag the parents mercilessly. 

Top 10 quick shopping tips

Now that you know how you're being manipulated and swayed by the supermarket, here are my Instant Expert ten quick tips to break free of the power that supermarkets have on your shopping experience. 

  • 1. Do not go shopping on an empty stomach.
  • 2.  Eat an apple before grocery shopping as it will encourage you to buy more fruits and vegetables. 
  • 3. Write a list. Bring the list with you. Only shop from the list.
  • 4. Enter the store and go left. Go directly to the aisle where your item is located.
  • 5. Don't take a shopping cart. If you only have a few items, take the hand basket. 
  • 6. Bring your own music. Make it lively and keep pace as you speed through the aisles.
  • 7. Leave the children at home. 
  • 8. Look down, look way down. Buy the store name or the generic brand. 
  • 9. Stick to your list!
  • 10. Grocery shop on Mondays or Tuesdays as they are the least busy shopping days. If you go at dinnertime, the checkout lines will be even shorter.


Wanita Bates


Wanita Bates is a freelance writer, photographer and broadcaster in St. John's. She has won national and international awards for her work.