Sneaky Grocery Store Tricks (And How To Avoid Them)

How to avoid sneaky grocery store tricksGrocery stores are experts at marketing and consumer behaviour.

They get you in the door, keep you inside as long as possible, and subtly trick you into spend more money than you planned.

I don’t go grocery shopping often (we get groceries delivered weekly) but when I do I’m always taken aback by the subtle things grocery stores do to part shoppers from their money.

Whether it’s putting fresh produce near the front to make it appear everything is fresh or keeping staples like milk and cheese at the back so people will wander the store, there are plenty of things they do to increase their sales.

Here’s a few things grocery stores do to trick customers into spending more (and how to avoid them):

External Cues

One surprising factor that influences shopping experience is the music played in the grocery stores. A study from 1982 showed that customers in grocery stores that play background music spent 34% more time shopping and in turn spent more money than in stores that didn’t play background music.

You might also notice that stores usually have no windows or skylights and clocks can be difficult to find. This is because stores want shoppers to be focused on buying more items instead of aspects outside the store like the weather. Shoppers that are conscious of time are more likely to spend less time and money, so stores try their best to get shoppers focused on nothing but the items displayed in front of them.

If you’re wondering why stores want us to spend so much time inside - it’s because it’s been proven that after about 40 minutes of shopping, rational selection (following a budget) is no longer as effective. People start buying using their emotions. This means the more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to buy things based on a whim. With the massive overwhelming selection most grocery stores offer, you can see why emotions become such a large factor in purchasing after the 40 minute mark.

Product Placement

Placing staples like milk, cheese and eggs at the back of the store forces shoppers to walk through the store to get there. In the process they’ll be exposed to numerous other (often more profitable) products and are much more likely to both notice them and buy more items overall.

Displays at the end of each aisle are called “endcaps” and are used to highlight special promotions. Look carefully at the prices though because in most cases the items aren’t even on sale and the food companies have paid a premium to have their products situated there. What may look like a deal, really isn’t a deal at all.

Food companies face tough competition from each other to have their products placed on the best shelf locations. Most consumers look at or slightly below eye level when scanning shelves. These locations are considered high-value and food companies pay more to have their products there. Products geared towards children like cereals are usually at a lower level and are meant to grab their attention. The products at eye level are there to sell the most, but they aren’t necessarily the best deals available. The best deals are usually found below eye level or near the bottom and top of the shelves.

Related: Which Grocery Store Has The Lowest Prices?

Premium Products

Another simple way grocery stores get shoppers to spend more money is by selective product placement.

Some stores will place expensive, premium items near the front of the store that are visible to all shoppers when they walk in. If you go in looking for a staple like cheese, the premium cheese items will be near the front and the regular cheese products will be in the back.

The store uses this so that shoppers will feel like buying the regular cheese is a better deal than the premium one. In this way, the premium displays aren’t even there to generate sales of that item – they drive sales for lower cost alternatives that still have high profit margins. This is called price anchoring. The high price of the premium product makes you less sensitive to the often overpriced regular product.

The cheaper alternatives may be lower priced but they aren’t necessarily a good deal. The easiest way to avoid overpaying is by comparing prices from store to store. Using flyers available online or even a price-scanning app will help shoppers determine whether the item they’re buying is actually at a good price or just a cheaper alternative to an expensive premium product.

The Flipp website and mobile app is a great way to compare prices across all the grocery stores in your region.

Confusing Store Layouts

Many stores have layouts that can seem unnecessarily confusing - this is another trick that grocery stores use.

When shoppers go into a store looking to buy a few specific items, they end up walking through the entire store looking for those items if the layout is confusing. They’ll be exposed to more products, spend more time in store, and likely spend more money.

A good example of this is Costco’s store layouts. The aisles are unmarked on purpose so shoppers have more time to wander the aisles (and spend more money). Staff are usually able to give customers directions if asked but can be hard to find. The more time a customer spends looking for an item the more likely they are to buy other items.

The best way to prevent wandering the aisles and temptation to buy things you may not want or need is to simply have a list and stick to it. If you only buy what’s on your list, you won’t be tempted by other products you come across no matter how lost you get inside the store.

Related: How To Spot Fresh In Season Produce At The Grocery Store

Product Scarcity

Grocery stores also use the idea of scarcity to increase sales. Scarcity is the idea that a sale only lasts for a limited time so shoppers should take advantage of it now to avoid missing out on the deals.

An example of this is when a grocery store puts an item on sale with a limited number of items each customer can buy. For example, if cereal is on sale, they might limit the sale to 2 boxes per customer.

This automatically gives off the impression the deal is so good that people will be coming in and buying multiple boxes. In reality, the deal usually isn’t that good but introducing scarcity is another way to make it seem like it’s a great deal. The easiest way to confirm is to use a price-scanning app that allows you to compare prices.

Cart Size

Have you ever noticed that throughout the years shopping carts seem to be getting bigger? Even shopping baskets are getting bigger. For the past 30 years shopping cart sizes have slowly increased.

One marketing expert found that if stores doubled the size of grocery carts their sales increased by 40%.

People see the empty space in their shopping carts and automatically feel the need to fill it. The logic is that people have taken the time and effort to come to the store and leaving with nothing (or very little) would not be a productive use of time. So when shoppers see empty space in their shopping cart they try to fill it and end up spending more than they planned.

Remember: just stick to your list no matter how empty your cart might seem!

5 Tips For Saving Money At The Grocery Store

  • Make sure you are well fed before going to get groceries. If you are shopping on an empty stomach you are more likely to buy more food than you would buy if you were full.
  • Consider shopping when stores offer customer appreciation days. For example Safeway and Sobey’s have a customer appreciation day on the first Tuesday of every month with 10% off all items.
  • Consider using a rewards card to pay for your groceries as well as a loyalty card (such as Air Miles). I use the Scotiabank Momentum Visa Infinite card which pays 4% cash back on groceries and this year I’ll earn almost $300 in cash back for grocery purchases alone.
  • When comparing prices between stores, it’s important to compare unit prices to get the best price estimations. For example, if you’re looking at plastic sandwich bags and one store has them on sale at $3.50 for 100 and another store sells them at regular price of $4 for 150, the regular price is actually cheaper ($0.02 cents per bag vs. $0.035 on sale) even though the price is higher.
  • Buy in bulk whenever possible, but make sure the unit prices are lower than regular sized packages.

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Ken's picture

I'm surprised you left out a few key items in saving money at a grocery store:

1 - Pay attention to grocery offers for weekly staples - produce/deli/dairy. Plan your meals around those specials, taking care (especially in smaller households) to plan meals that will use a significant portion of your food. If you buy parsley, or lettuce, or bread, ensure you'll use it before it expires by either planning your meals around it, or portioning and freezing when you get home.
2 - on the freezing front, if you have the space, purchase items for commonly used recipes when on sale, portion, and freeze. This is true even of things like fresh herbs (place portions with water in an ice cube tray, freeze, then place in a freezer bag. you can use these like fresh in most recipies).
3 - when buying bulk, avoid large bulk "single use" packs of items (an example, ten individually wrapped chicken breasts in a bulk package). These are convenient, and bulk, but tend to be far more expensive than just buying them in a bulk package then separating/freezing them yourself.
4 - Don't waste money buying bulk spices unless you'll use them within a year. Most (ground) spices lose flavour within a year, and you'll just end up either replacing them in a year (and wasting the money you spent on the excess) or wondering why your recipes aren't as great as you remember when the flavour fades.
5 - DO make use of the clearance selection if you are using items same-day, or within the expiry date. You can save a great deal of money, especially if you intend to freeze / toast / whatever anyway
6 - Most prepared foods at grocery stores are terrible value. salads served by weight are often caked in oil or water to increase cost (more weight), and tend to be more expensive than just purchasing the individual ingredients yourself. You're trying to save money - the best way to do this is to substitute your own time instead. In almost every case, doing the labour yourself will be cheaper than paying for completed food.

Now, one last comment not involving saving money - do try to support local farmers, ranchers, and producers when you can. They may *not* be the cheapest option in every case, but we all need to do our part to stop food shipments crisscrossing the globe just to save us a few cents on our meals (while also supporting lower labour costs in other countries as a result). That being said, you may be surprised at what sort of deals you can get from your local farmers market if you ask.

January 26, 2016 @ 8:31 am
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Great insights and tips Ken. I never considered the added oil or water on prepared salads, but thinking about it you are probably right.

I'm definitely one to keep bulk spices around for a LONG time and still use them years later. I've never really noticed a change in taste but I'm probably not that picky about getting the full flavour. I more about avoiding food that I definitely don't like the taste of than making sure the food I do like tastes the best it possibly can.

January 26, 2016 @ 8:05 pm
D a n's picture

Hi Ken, I have found some great deals from local farmers during farmers markets in the summer months. The nice thing about dealing directly with local farmers and producers is that they aren't constrained by large corporate policies so they have the flexibility to offer last minute sales, deals or promos as they see fit. They can also offer better deals for cash purchases as it keeps their costs low by not having to pay transaction fees involved with credit/debit

January 26, 2016 @ 11:25 pm
adora's picture

Additional note on comparing prices - take advantage of Price Matching. You can buy everything at one store, just show them the ads of another store with lower price. Fresh Co even beat it by 1 cent. Highly recommend "Flip" app on smartphone, you can search by items and have all the prices at a glance.

The most important thing, really, is to buy things you actually eat. My mom used to buy those packets of pasta in bulk from Grand Mart (Costo-sque store) because they are dirt cheap, but I'm the only one who could tolerate them, and because I hate food waste. I was eating that crap between age 14-16 regularly. I had to just let a case go to waste for my mom to stop buying them. Til this day, I can't even look at a pack of Knorr or Kraft without disgust.

It's actually not difficult to save money at the grocery stores with some planning, the hard part is to still buy nutritious food that everyone can enjoy. After all, you should value nutrition/ health of family before money.

Just stop snacking. No good can come of it.

January 26, 2016 @ 10:26 am
Michael @ So You Think You Can Save's picture

Great tips. Our grocery store of preference is more of a supercenter and you can definitely tell that they use all of these tricks and then some. During a recent effort to remodel all of their stores, they moved all of the personal care items to the very opposite corner of the store from the groceries. Since many people consider stuff like shampoo, band aids, deodarant, etc. as part of their grocery needs, they're going to go over there...and in the process will have to walk through the entirety of the store, being exposed to a lot more products than they would have otherwise.

January 26, 2016 @ 10:52 am
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Before reading Dan's point about a "confusing store layout", I never really considered that they try and make the layout confusing on purpose. I'm used to my normal grocery store so I don't really find it confusing, but I have definitely walked into some and thought "this makes no sense at all - the designers must have been really stupid". I guess they were smarter than I thought :)

January 26, 2016 @ 8:08 pm
D a n's picture

Good points Michael. A great example of a confusing store layout is Costco - the aisles are left unmarked on purpose so shoppers will wander the store trying to find what they need (and spend more in the process)

January 26, 2016 @ 11:22 pm
Elsie MacLeod
Elsie MacLeod's picture

I hate shopping at Costco for that very reason....the aisles aren't marked. We might buy clothing there, actually, my husband is the one who shops there for books or clothing. I never buy my groceries there, because there is only 2 of us and you have to buy things in bulk (I'd have to invite the neighbours over all the time). If I need ketchup for example, I have to buy 3 that are wrapped together. I have to admit that their hot dogs are good tasting and a great price. I always have to ask for the sauerkraut, but I don't mind.

January 27, 2016 @ 12:32 am
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Since their inventory is relatively small for the size of the store, I know exactly where everything is now but I must admit my first time through the place was pretty overwhelming.

January 27, 2016 @ 3:55 pm
Marpy's picture

Locations for product at costco do not change much. I shop there on a regular basis and know where most things I am looking for are and don't even go down the other isles. What i really dislike as what all the grocery stores are now doing - spreading out similar products through out the store making it more difficult to price compare. This totally sucks as I want to see all the similar product grouped together so that I can decide on brand and price!

January 17, 2017 @ 11:14 am
D King
D King's picture

and the carts are enormous

August 23, 2017 @ 12:13 am
paul's picture

I always make a list before I go grocery shopping and usually just buy what is on the list. Most of my grocery shopping is done at the Real Canadian Superstore in Vancouver. Walmart is about a block away and if the Real Canadian does not price match or they do not have the product I just stop at the Walmart on my way home. The PC Points are great and I use them all the time. Just be disciplined when you shop and you will keep the bill down. It is quite easy to do and always buy what's on sale in regards to fresh produce and meat.

January 26, 2016 @ 9:17 pm
D a n's picture

Good points, Paul. That is convenient being so close to a RCSS and Walmart. I try to find items on sale at both stores when I am nearby but I don't live too close to either

January 26, 2016 @ 11:15 pm
Christina's picture

I buy clothes, milk, egg and cheese from Costco. I shop the same Costco all the time. I do like the rolled oats there. Then, the Nescafe coffee and Coffeemate. They have made in Canada T-shirts, guess it is AllenTracy brand. Those are good and last long for me.
At Walmart, I use to take the small basket instead of shopping cart. At NoFrills, my preference is to get the cheap veggies and fruits for the week.

January 28, 2016 @ 11:32 am
D a n's picture

Hi Christina, I go to Costco about once per month and buy anything from razors to contact solution. It is great because even though the quantities are large I only buy things I will use so waste levels are kept low. I tried buying fresh fruit at the local Superstore last year but the quality wasn't that great

January 28, 2016 @ 3:33 pm
Maria's picture

Great point on the 40 minute shopping rule. Never thought of it before but it's rare that I spend less than 40 minutes at a grocery store. My saving grace is that I meal plan for at least two weeks in advance, list what I need to buy for the next couple of weeks using an app called Out of Milk, and stick with my list.

I enjoy going to Costco as well Christina for certain select items - and the good thing about Costco is that I can snack around so I don't worry as much being well fed just before going. Although it can be tempting to buy what taste good as I take their free samples - my list holds me accountable to only buy what I came for :)

January 28, 2016 @ 2:07 pm
D a n's picture

Hi Maria, thanks for your comments. I tend to meal plan every week (usually on weekends when I have time) and only buy what is needed. Costco is great for free samples and they also have a really good return policy. I usually have to stop myself from overspending while there as there is always something that is a good deal

January 28, 2016 @ 3:35 pm
Ian's picture

As a single guy, I actually find it better on a price point to buy my fresh vegetables, some frozen, frozen fruit, bread, butter, and eggs at costco until summer. You have to be on you game when you are in Costco. I have gone in and only spend 20 dollars just getting the items I need. Or done a major stock up for 200. You just can't waste money there on things you just have no use for. At least there I know the product is truly fresh and cycled properly. Grant it, I still check the best before dates.
Now in regards to regular stores, I find in atlantic canada that Super store is the best over all for a main stream store. Sadly there are no No frills in moncton yet. I also for the first time am purchasing direct from a producer organic grass feed beef cut and vac sealed on a quarter of a cow for 4.35 a pound on a hanging weight. This will last me most of the year. I get to support the beef industry and a local market directly and not have to pay for any extra shipping or middle man fees. When you look at the price on purchasing a sirlon steak at 9.99 a pound on double AA USDA beef not Canadian, I will pay the producer any day of the week. I am also getting half a pig too but I think there will be a lot of waste on it due to the fat content. I also buy my garlic direct from a producer in PEI, and some of vegetables in keningston. I am actually considering doing a small aquaponics system to grow lettuce etc.

Dan had mentioned a few posts up that he buys Razor's at Costco. It's not always the best deal. I buy all shaving products from the Italian Barber and Men's Essentials. I have been using a safety razor for years. For razor blades for a year I spend less then 20 dollars canada. You really have to look at what your getting and decide if it's really worth the price you pay.

January 29, 2016 @ 8:08 pm
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Thanks for adding to the discussion Ian. Good for you being able to go through Costco and only spend $20. That's quite an impressive feat indeed :)

Love what you're doing buying big portions of an entire animal. It gets your costs down, gets you local meat that you can verify the quality of, and saves you money. I've considered doing this many times in the past myself - but we eat so little meat in my house that it just isn't worth it.

February 01, 2016 @ 12:58 pm
Dorothy's picture

Ian buying half a cow from producer, saves money but has not taken into account the cost of large freezer and electricity to run it. It still should be a savings but not as much as it would appear from his figures.
Today's pork is much leaner, so I doubt the fat content is any higher than beef.
Best way to save money on food is to cut back on prepared foods; buy what you need and be willing to eat the same thing for a day or two. I've see so much waste because of leftovers left in fridge too long and then thrown out. It's almost immoral.

February 10, 2016 @ 12:41 am
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

I suppose electricity costs would be higher if you need to run an extra or larger freezer because of buying meat in bulk. However, if it is a choice between a half-full freezer and a full freezer then you would actually be saving money with the full freezer because it costs less electricity to maintain the temperature in a full freezer (at least I recall reading that somewhere anyway).

It is sad how much leftovers get thrown out. It happens in our house too sometimes although we try to minimize it as we are always cooking in bulk and eating leftovers most days.

February 14, 2016 @ 9:10 pm
Alex Mathias
Alex Mathias's picture

Love this post!

Another good tip I (try) to live by is to shop your kitchen first. If you can plan meals around what you already have in your fridge/freezer/pantry, you reduce food waste and save money. Soups and stews are a great way of using up leftovers of course, so if you plan a couple of meals like that per week, you will save some pennies...

February 18, 2016 @ 1:33 pm
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

With the price of food ever increasing I'm sure you'll save more than just pennies when you are careful to reduce food waste!

February 22, 2016 @ 12:12 pm
Naomi's picture

A fairly new strategy in food stores is the buy 3 and save which pushes buying too much. Another is having a sale sticker on many items when in fact it is not a weekly special being offered at a sale price. I see that a lot in Loblaw'so here in Canada.
Another ploy is "new low price" type of tag when the price is really no less than it is in other stores. I have seen that a lot in several chains here as well

May 10, 2016 @ 6:31 pm
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Good ones Naomi. First it was very stand-out tags for sale priced items, then those boldly coloured tags for featured regular priced items came shortly thereafter. Definitely have to watch out for those. I often peal back the sale price tag to see the regular price underneath.

May 13, 2016 @ 2:31 pm
Deborah's picture

The very BEST way to save grocery money and save the planet? Stop eating meat! Try Meatless Monday and see where you can go from there. We quit over two years ago, and have saved money, lowered our cholesterol, and feel all-around better, physically and ethically.

May 13, 2016 @ 9:45 pm
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Great suggestions Deborah. My family has been very low meat for years and then a little while back we decided to cut out meat all together. I LOVE meat, but my wife tries very hard to keep us healthy and I tried to play along as much as I can because I know it's good for us.

Unfortunately, we found that not having any meat in our diet negatively effected our energy levels and made us feel hungry more often so we always needed to be eating. We were substituting high protein vegetable sources, but still had issues. I found I needed vitamin B12 supplements as well, but things still weren't quite right.

It's definitely worth a shot though if you're interested both in saving money and want to use a more sustainable source of food.

May 16, 2016 @ 11:14 am

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