More than just purveyors of milk and eggs, supermarkets have learned how to entice consumers with smell, targeted shelf placement, and psychological subterfuge.
According to the National Grocer's Association, the average family of four spends $4300 per year on food. While this is a large chunk of the family budget, you don't have to adopt a Spartan diet to save money and buy healthful foods at the supermarket. Just knowing the layout of the market and recognizing some very subtle marketing cues can help you save up to $750 per year.
The layout of your local supermarket is not as arbitrary as it seems. It's designed to make you spend as much as possible on what the store wants you to buy—which is often more than what you came in for. For example, meat, poultry, and seafood are usually displayed along the entire back length of the store so that you'll see them every time you emerge from an aisle—an appropriate placement for the most profitable department in the store!
Pushing the Perimeter
Ever wonder why the dairy department is so far away from the main entrance?
Almost everybody buys milk and eggs, and the stores recognize that. To reach the dairy case, you have to walk through the entire market, tossing a few extra items into your cart along the way. Half of a store's profits come from these "perimeter" items, which include milk, cheese, meat, deli products, and produce; the more time you spend shopping along the sides and back of the supermarket, the more money the store makes. It's no coincidence that you have to walk through the produce department just as you enter the market. Produce and flowers are the second most profitable department in the supermarket, bringing in more than 20% of the store's profits while occupying less than 10% of floor space.
Luring You into the Supermarket
Here are some even subtler techniques supermarkets use to entice you to spend:
- Leading you around by the nose: Notice the fresh-baked smell of bread when you walk in? Consumer research has shown that bakery smells make people spend money.
- End of the road: You probably assume that items featured on an endcap display are on sale, but this is often not the case. Because supermarket managers know that shoppers have this (mis)perception, they stack products on endcaps to move them quickly—often without the benefit of a lowered price.
- Arbitrary limits: Store managers know that customers tend to buy more of something when there is some imposed limit. So don't be lured into buying something you don't really need just because the sign says "limit three per customer."
Placement and Profits
Placement of packages on supermarket shelves is very carefully planned. Supermarket executives use computer-generated planograms to help them place products on shelves in a way that creates the greatest possible profit.
- The 5 feet 4 inches rule: The most expensive items in the store are just about 5 feet 4 inches off the floor—eye level of the average adult woman. Marketing experts know that people tend to reach for what is right in front of them. This is particularly evident in the baking aisle, where heavily advertised, expensive cake and brownie mixes are right at eye level. If you want to bake from scratch, which is much less expensive, you'd have to bend down almost to the floor to grab that much less expensive bag of flour from the bottom shelf.
- Kids stuff: The exception to the 5-feet-4-inches-off-the-floor rule? Items targeted at children. The most expensive children's cereals, for example, are at a kid's eye level, while lesser-priced generic and bagged cereals are way off to the left or higher up.
- The good stuff's in the middle: Another little trick... The most popular items in any aisle are almost always in the middle—rather than on the end—so you're forced to walk down the entire aisle, hopefully picking up a few impulse items on the way.
- The buddy system: To encourage impulse buying, supermarkets often place related items near each other. That's why canned cheese is next to the crackers, and jelly is next to the peanut butter. The more expensive item is almost always to the right, because most shoppers are right-handed and merchandisers know it. They go out of their way to put items they especially want you to buy to the right of a popular product you already buy.
- Getting comfortable: The physical layout of large supermarkets is also designed to enhance your comfort level and increase the amount of time you spend in the store. The aisles are wide, because women—still the primary shoppers—don't like to be touched from behind by carriages or by other shoppers. Stores try to respect your comfort zones.
- 1. Avoid crowds. They break your concentration and make you more likely to impulse shop. Fridays, Saturdays, and the 15th and the 30th of the month are the busiest shopping days. Shopping in the early morning or late at night helps you avoid long lines, which makes you less likely to impulse shop while you wait to check out.
- 2. Shop alone. Don't shop when depressed or hungry. It's hard to concentrate on comparison-shopping when little Emily is floating in the lobster tank, or when everything in the store looks delicious.
- 3. Watch out for downsizing. Manufacturers get more money for their products without raising prices by putting less product in the same sized container. Especially true of cereals and coffee.
- 4. Compare unit prices. Although larger-sized products are usually the better buy, that may not hold true for peanut butter, tomato products, cottage cheese, and tuna fish.
5. Differentiate between brand names, house brands, and generics:
- Brand name products flaunt fancy labels, offer coupons as buying incentives, are nationally advertised, and are available at most supermarket chains.
- House brands are manufactured for and carried by one particular chain of stores, usually carry the name of the store on the label, and are less expensive than their brand-name counterpart. In many cases, they are the same product, because both brands are produced by the brand-name manufacturer. The costs are lower because the labeling and marketing costs are almost nonexistent.
- Generic products have a typical no-frills label and are the least expensive of the three. They usually represent production overages or end runs of a production line, and quality may vary from one purchase to the next. For example, brand-name bran cereal with raisins is practically identical to the house brand. The generic brand, however, probably has fewer raisins.
As you decide which type of product to buy, determine how you plan to use it. Your family may balk at generic juices, but probably won't notice the difference between name-brand and house-brand dairy products, condiments, or canned vegetables.
American Dietetic Association
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Dietitians of Canada
Gladwell M. The science of shopping. Available at: http://www.gladwell.com/1996_11_04_a_shopping.htm.
Staten V. Can You Trust a Tomato in January? The Hidden Life of Groceries and Other Secrets of the Supermarket Revealed at Last. Simon and Schuster; 1992.
Underhill P. Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Simon and Schuster; 1999.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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