Surviving the Sneaky Psychology of Supermarkets

We’re all being manipulated by our grocery stores.

The experience of dashing into the local Price Chopper, Safeway, or Piggly Wiggly for a quart of milk and emerging with a bulging cartload of unintended food purchases is universal—and it’s not our fault. Supermarkets make us do it. Or at least they certainly try.

Grocery shopping, start to finish, is a cunningly orchestrated process. Every feature of the store—from floor plan and shelf layout to lighting, music, and ladies in aprons offering free sausages on sticks—is designed to lure us in, keep us there, and seduce us into spending money.

For starters, once you enter a grocery store, it’s often not easy to get out again. A common feature of supermarkets is the one-way entry door; to get back out, you’re compelled to walk through a good portion of the store—with its tempting displays of buyables—to find an exit.

After the one-way front door, the first supermarket feature you inevitably encounter is the produce department. There’s a good reason for this: the sensory impact of all those scents, textures, and colors (think fat tomatoes, glossy eggplants, luscious strawberries) makes us feel both upbeat and hungry. Similarly the store bakery is usually near the entrance, with its scrumptious and pervasive smell of fresh-baked bread; as is the flower shop, with its buckets of tulips, bouquets of roses, and banks of greenery. The message we get right off the bat is that the store is a welcoming place, fresh, natural, fragrant, and healthy, with comforting shades of grandma’s kitchen.

The cruel truth is that the produce department is less garden and kitchen than stage set. Lighting is chosen to make fruits and veggies appear at their brightest and best; and – according to Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buythe periodic sprays of fresh water that douse the produce bins are all for show. Though used to give fresh foods a deceptive dewy and fresh-picked look, the water actually has no practical purpose. In fact, it makes vegetables spoil faster than they otherwise would.

A classic of this kind of customer manipulation, Lindstrom points out, is the banana—still America’s favorite fruit—whose signature ripe yellow is actually the result of painstaking marketing analyses. Sales records indicated the customers bought more bananas if their peels were Pantone color 12-0752 (Buttercup) rather than the slightly brighter Pantone color 13-0858 (Vibrant Yellow). Banana growers responded by planting their crops under conditions tailored to produce Buttercup.

On a larger scale, the supermarket is designed to inveigle customers into spending as much time as possible within its doors. Dairy departments are almost invariably located as far from the entrance as possible, ensuring that customers—most of whom will have at least one dairy item on their lists—will have to walk the length of the store, passing a wealth of tempting products, en route to the milk, eggs, cheese, and yogurt. Especially popular items are routinely located in the middle of aisles, so that even the most single-minded buyer has a chance to be distracted by alternatives. Mid-aisle positioning is intended to sideline the so-called Boomerang Effect, in which some shoppers (notably men) simply head for the item they need, then return the way they came.

Music encourages us to dawdle: A famous study of background music and supermarket shoppers, conducted in 1982, found that people spent 34 percent more time shopping, with a corresponding uptick in sales, in stores that played music. And supermarkets tend to be devoid of external time cues: most have no windows or skylights, and shoppers are often hard-pressed to find a clock.

The rationale for all these delaying tactics is simple: The longer you stay in the store, the more stuff you’ll see, and the more stuff you see, the more you’ll buy. And supermarkets contain a lot of stuff. The average supermarket, according to the Food Marketing Institute, carries some 44,000 different items, and many carry tens of thousands more. The sheer volume of available choice is enough to send shoppers into a state of information overload. According to brain-scan experiments conducted by Paul Mullins and colleagues of Bangor University, Wales, the demands of so much decision-making quickly become too much for us. After about 40 minutes of shopping, most people stop struggling to be rationally selective, and instead began shopping emotionally—which is the point at which we accumulate the 50 percent of stuff in our cart that we never intended buying.

Even shelf order is a psychological trap. The most expensive items are generally placed conveniently at eye level; generic brands are on the lower shelves such that, to get at them, you have to crouch. Foods meant to appeal to kids are set at kids’-eye-level; and one study by researchers at Cornell found that kid-targeted cereal packaging is designed such that cartoon characters on the boxes make eye contact with (short) passers-by.

The displays at the ends of the aisles—known in the supermarket business as end caps—are astute shopper traps. Companies pay high prices to display their products there, since these are hot spots for impulse buying. According to the National Retail Hardware Association, a product at an end cap sells eight times faster than the same product shelved elsewhere on the aisle.

And we’re not helped by the size of our shopping carts. Just having a shopping cart increases the chance of our buying more—which was the impetus behind their invention by grocery-store-owner Sylvan Goldman in 1937. Goldman’s original cart consisted of a modest pair of wire baskets on a folding frame. Carts have since tripled in size, and they’re still growing. According to Martin Lindstrom, doubling the size of the shopping cart leads shoppers to buy 40 percent more.

So what to do about all this?

Make a list and stick to it, seems to be the best advice. Try not to shop so often—fewer and more efficient trips to the store are easier on the pocketbook—and don’t shop when you’re hungry.

And when it comes to supermarket psychology, know what to look for.

Forewarned is forearmed.