We all know we should never go to a grocery store without a list—and that we should never, ever (well, maybe, if there’s a really good reason) deviate from it. What many of us really don’t know is exactly how supermarkets trick us into parting with our money.
You know how it is. You go in for bread, milk and toilet paper. You come out with “fresh” (reheated from frozen dough) bread, some pretty flowers, cake that was on sale and a copy of Vogue because The National Enquirer makes too much sense. Also some toilet paper—but you forgot the milk. So you go back for the milk and you get it, along with the new type of instant coffee and the cereal you sampled.
Everything about your supermarket is optimized to make you spend money that you didn’t plan on spending, and even that you don’t really have to spend. Here are some of their best, most common tricks—and how to be aware of them so that you can avoid falling into the trap.
22 Sneaky Tactics
- Warm colors on the outside—like a brick façade—bring you in. Cool interior colors, like blue, encourage you to spend more.
- That music you hear? Is designed to slow you down because the more time you spend it a store, the more money you spend. And if it’s classical music, you’re more likely to buy expensive stuff. (To get in and out, wear headphones and listen to fast music.)
- The bigger your shopping cart, the more stuff you buy, more easily. Want to limit your purchases? Use a hand basket.
- And the more food you buy, the more you’ll eat. Economy sizes of dish soap, detergent and toilet paper are one thing: you’re just not going to start using twice as much. But if you’ve gone from buying a 6-pack of soda once a week to a 12-pack of soda once a week, chances are, you’ve probably doubled your soda consumption. And increased your waistband. And your risk of diabetes.
- The floral department is near the entrance because the fragrance puts you in a good mood. Just being cheerful encourages us to spend money.
- That’s why the produce department is at the front of the store, too. The pretty, appetizing colors of fruit and veggies put you in a good mood so you want to buy food. If you take advantage of that moment and load up on produce, all those healthy items in front of you as you continue your shopping trip can serve as a reminder of your health-building efforts and hopefully put the brakes on sabotaging impulse buys.
- And the bakery and deli departments. Food smells make us hungry and then hungrier, the more we want to eat. Which means we buy more.
- Sample stations don’t just expose you to new products, they slow you down. And if you enjoyed the sample, chances are, you’ll buy it. Or something else to reciprocate the “gift.”
- Likewise, the closer a product is to your eye level, the more the store wants you to buy it. Better stuff and better-priced stuff are usually above eye-level or near the floor. But be careful. That’s because…
- The closer a product is to your kid’s eye level, the more the store wants your kid to nag you to buy it. All the cereal-shaped sugar is at kids-eye-level.
- If it’s on the end cap of an aisle, the manufacturer really wants you to buy it. So much so, they’ve paid money to the store to put it there.
- If you see something you like in the deli counter, check if it’s also in the dairy case. If it’s there, it’s probably cheaper. You’re paying extra for slicing and wrapping.
- The hot pizza in your store’s deli is probably the store-brand pizza in the freezer case, and for a lot more money per slice. Don’t take the risk that it isn’t handmade goodness, and just move on.
- Likewise, at the fish counter, if it says “previously frozen” in small type, you can find it in the freezer case for less. Bonus: it may be an especially good deal if it’s in larger amounts, and of course, you don’t have to use it right away.
- Just because a product is in your store’s circular, doesn’t mean it’s on sale. It may very well be full price.
- If you see something sold at 10 for $1 (for example), make sure you’ll actually use 10. They’re planning to make their money on bulk purchases.
- Likewise, check to make sure that the sale item you think you’re buying is actually the item on sale—rather than the full-price version right next to it.
- The most profitable items in a store are in the checkout line. They are also often among the least healthy and most tempting—especially to children, and manufacturers count on parents wishing to appease a screaming child to avoid embarrassment.
- When you sign up for a Valued Customer card, you hand the store genuinely valuable tracking data about your spending habits in exchange for an occasional deal on—usually—processed food.
- We tend to remember only the prices of milk, bananas, eggs and bread. Which means we don’t really know what all the other items should cost.
- Most of us buy 80% of our groceries week after week, so keep your receipts and look at the prices. That way, you’ll know when to take advantage of sales.
- Supermarkets deliberately make their checkout lanes narrow, with very little shelf space, so it’s hard for you to put something aside at the last moment.
You’d think that with all these sneaky tactics, that the stores would be turning large profits, right? Well, you might be surprised to know that your local supermarket makes about 1.5% profit—that’s it. Just so you know.
Where does the rest go, you ask? To the major manufacturers who turn food into processed poison, and the advertisers who convince you that you can’t live without it. But you can. And better.
How to Stretch Your Budget Further
Now that you know the tricks supermarkets use to get you to spend your money on things you don’t want, don’t need, and aren’t good for you, here’s how to stretch your money. You can use the savings to buy better-quality food, like pasture-raised meat and eggs, hormone-free milk, and sprouted whole grain bread. There’s a reason these items are (sadly) often more expensive: they taste better and are better for you! Make the most of them and save a surprising amount of money:
- Fresh bread in those attractive paper bags stays fresh longer if you put it in an airtight plastic bag when you get home. Since your bread won’t go bad before you can eat it, you can buy better bread, like sprouted whole grain bread, which is far more nourishing than regular white or wheat bread. Regular wheat bread is often white bread that has been colored brown—at best with molasses and at worst with possibly carcinogenic caramelized sugar.
- If you see something you want in the bakery or meat departments and the expiration date is tomorrow, ask them if they’ll mark it down for you tonight. They probably will.
- Similarly, scratched and dented goods, such as canned food, shampoos, etc., can be had at significant savings.
- Imperfect, blemished fruits and vegetables are often amazing bargains, particularly if you’re going to use them in the next day or so. Remember: it doesn’t have to be pretty to be delicious and nutritious.
- If you’re concerned about the cost of buying organic, you can save money by limiting those buys to an as-needed basis. Click here to read more about When to Go Organic.
- A good sale is about a 50% price cut. It is mathematically the same as a 2-for-1 special, but the latter is only worth it if you can use it before the expiration date without betraying your health.
- Buying in bulk is often a better deal, especially if the food is not packaged (such as products in bins sold by weight). However, this is not a set-in-stone rule. Check unit cost.
- Want local or hormone-free milk? Chances are, your local convenience or drug store has it a better price than your grocery store.
- However, loyalty can sometimes pay off. Your grocery store will do a lot for you—for free—if you just ask. This includes special-ordering things for you. Need a special order on a regular basis? They can do that, too.
- The butcher counter, while seeming to be an indulgence, can be a surprising source of tailor-made orders at no extra cost.
- They can bone or tenderize meat or fish, skin fish or chicken and dredge them in seasoning, trim the fat off meat and marinate it, and special-order things for you.
- On a per-pound basis, large cuts of meat are cheaper than small ones. You can ask the butcher to cut them up into smaller portions, the freeze for later use. Spend the savings on better-quality meat.
- Don’t be taken in by marketing. “Angus” isn’t great beef, it’s just a breed. Look for the USDA quality grade: prime (which is rarely found in grocery stores, and tends to be the highest in fat), choice, select, and finally, standard. You can find really great meat at your farmer’s market: hormone- and antibiotic free, and pasture-raised. Make sure that if you go at the end of the day, ask for discounts.
- Supermarket meat departments usually mark down meat between 8 and 10 AM. This is the time for bargains. Find a large roast that’s too big for your needs but it’s a great bargain? Ask the butcher to cut it up for you. When you get home, freeze the portions separately.
- Food safety is a growing and significant concern, especially when it comes to ground meat, which can contain the least desirable trimmings from many, many cattle. See a great bargain on some pasture-raised chuck roast or sirloin but you’re jonesing for a great hamburger? Have the butcher grind that meat into hamburger. You get terrific ground meat—and your risk of food-borne infection has taken a nose-dive.