Shopping: Zombies of the aisles

How do grocers turn us into buying machines?



From the June 2009 issue of the magazine.


Ever walk into a supermarket to buy milk, then emerge half an hour later having spent $200? It’s no accident. The food industry has spent years studying how we can be lured into spending more.

“The floor design, the length of aisles, the end-of-aisle displays, as well as lighting, music, color scheme, location of flowers and the addition of a bakery are all designed to encourage customers to linger and gaze at product,” says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating. Grocers know that the more we see, the more we buy. If you want to resist temptation, follow these five rules:

Don’t follow the crowd. Stores are designed so you’ll follow the path the grocer wants you to take. Why? People naturally look to their right when they shop, so if you follow the usual route, the most expensive items will be on your right side, says Jonni McCoy, author of Miserly Moms: Living Well on Less in a Tough Economy. Her advice: shop in the opposite direction to everyone else. Even better, spend most of your time around the store’s perimeter. That’s where everyday staples such as vegetables, meats, milk and cheese are kept. It’s inside the aisles that we tend to load up on pop and chips.

Look down. Grocers put the cheapest items on the bottom shelf. More expensive and profitable goods are kept at eye level. In one store we noticed a half-litre jar of sweet pickles for $3.49. When we bent down to the bottom shelf we found a jar of the same brand that was twice the size for the same price.

Make a list. Up to 70% of the groceries we buy are things we had not originally planned to buy. We simply added them to our cart because they looked tasty. The easiest way to slash your grocery bill is to write a shopping list at home and stick to what’s on it, says Nestle.

Check that deal. Supermarkets try to create the impression that a product is on sale, even if it isn’t. A big display of orange juice is eyecatching, but the price may actually be higher than juice in the aisles. Another common tactic: promote volume discounts that aren’t really deals at all. In one store a promotion caught our eye: three avocados for $5.00. What if we needed only one? The price turned out to be $1.67, which multiplied by three equals $5.01. Buying three avocados would have saved us a mere penny.

In a rush? If all you need is milk and butter, don’t pick up a shopping basket. Grocers place baskets at storefronts because they know that if you pick one up, you’ll probably fill it. And since milk is always kept in the farthest corner away from the door, you will have to walk by dozens and dozens of other items to get to it.

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