Since everyone in Singapore is doing investigative work, I figured I’ll do a little research on my own, one that would, you know, actually benefit people.
With inflation rising rapidly over the past decade, you might have find yourself spending more and more on groceries. But while a supermarket might seem like a nice, big place to get all your essentials while allowing you a breather from your hectic life, it’s actually waging a psychological war on you every time you step into one, a battle that almost everyone will never triumph.
Over the weekend, I went to three supermarkets, namely Giant Hypermarket (Tampines Retail Park), NTUC Xtra (Ang Mo Kio Hub) and Cold Storage (Causeway Point) to confirm my initial findings. The former two were non-photo establishments, resulting in me getting reprimanded twice at Giant. One of the staff told me it was fine to take photos of the items, but not the price tags, and on hindsight, I realized I shouldn’t have gone it with a DSLR. The photos (taken with my phone) in this post were all from Cold Storage, where I tried to spot a no photography sign for a good five minutes before snapping away.
It has to be noted that none of the following tricks supermarkets use to make you spend more money are unethical. With the advent of the farmer’s market coupled with the rise of provision shops (or mama shops) in recent years, one can hardly blame them for trying to remain dominant in a time where affluence is rife and choices aplenty.
We are not as rational as we like to think we are, and our subconscious affects us more than we think it does. The supermarket is a psychological war zone, a very nasty one in fact, and in the next 20 minutes, I’m going to prove that to you.
Before I start this list, here’s a very little known fact to startle you guys and get ya’ll in the mood. Did you know that cereal like Koko Krunch and Honey Stars are actually considered to be… junk food? So parents, please make sure to check the sugar levels of your cereal before purchasing them for your children. We’ve been constantly exposed to advertisements from brands claiming that their cereal are filled with fiber and vitamins, and it’s time for people to realise that they’re absolutely not a healthy option in anyone’s diet, especially the diets of young ones where their food choices have a huge impact on their health.
1. Shopping Trolleys That Are Way Too Big
Before proceeding into a supermarket, shopping baskets and impressive rows of trolleys usually occupy the majority of the entrance. It should be pretty obvious even without reading this post that it takes quite a bit to actually fill up the entire trolley. They’re intentionally designed to be way larger than the average family’s weekly food list, in order to encourage you to buy way more food than you actually need.
We feel kinda obliged to buy more because the shopping cart is so big that we can’t just buy one or two products, we have to fill it up. Martin Lindstrom
Don’t believe me? Draft up a list of groceries your family needs for the week, take your usual routes around the supermarket (more on that later), and see for yourself how many items you’d purchased were not originally on your shopping list.
Still don’t believe me? Ask yourselves, how many of you actually bothered coming up with a shopping list and referring to it during your trips in the first place?
Some might argue the exploitation of shoppers without a shopping list to be a bit of a stretch, considering there are shopping baskets that are definitely not oversized. Sure, there are shopping baskets, but the collective purchases by an average family would not fit a mere basket, nor would someone want to tolerate lugging around a heavy load during the entire shopping trip.
These factors force most customers to use a trolley instead, which are usually readily available. Before reading this expose, you probably thought that shopping baskets are useful tools for those who only need to purchase a few things, but truth be told, it’s just an illusion of choice.
2. Overly-Attached Swing Gates
We have all gone through one of those annoying swing gates, but do you question why are they there in the first place? And why are they one-directional, preventing you from walking out of the same door? They add to the cost of the supermarket, certainly do not value add to the establishment, people are smart enough to not exit via the entrance (who would enter a supermarket accidentally anyway?), and don’t really serve much of a purpose than to deliver smacks to the crotches of unassuming customers.
As unbelievable as it sounds, they’re there to create a relationship with customers, which in turn would encourage even more spending. As per Dr. Paul Harrison, professor at Deakin University, who said on Australian TV show Food Investigators:
What happened is, you’ve entered (the supermarket), you’re welcomed, but you’re also not allowed to leave… the metaphorical doors are closing. (You could grab the exit), but you’re not going to, because you’re already invested in the relationship with the supermarket.
3. The Front Of The Supermarket Is Designed To Make You Spend More
I couldn’t believe it took me about 13 years before I asked myself this question that was staring at me every time I entered a supermarket. Why are fruits and vegetables displayed right at the very start of a customer’s journey, even though they’re likely to be squashed by heavier items later on?
The answer is pretty straightforward. How would you feel if the first few things you saw upon entering a grocery stall were stacks of toilet paper, cleaning essentials and laundry supplies?
Supermarkets need you to think that everything in their store is fresh; hence their decision to place fruits and vegetables near the entrance. The pleasant imagery, fresh scents, and bright colors also create a positive and relaxing atmosphere for customers to shop in, which lowers their ‘guards’, puts them in a good mood, and results in more sales and higher profits.
Sometimes, flowers are placed at the same strategic location in order to make shoppers feel less overwhelmed by the size of the shop, which, likewise, encourages them to spend longer times there. Baked goods can sometimes be situated there too as the smell activates our salivary glands and increase the likelihood of impulse purchases.
Also, foods like roast chicken, sushi, and sashimi are more often than not placed right after the food and veggies section, which again, makes us hungrier and increases our temptation to splurge on food items not originally on our minds.
Supermarkets place ready-to-eat foods like sushi or roast chicken so you’ll encounter them while your cart is empty, and your spirits are high.
Most supermarkets attempt to make their produce more tempting by spraying them with mists of water throughout the day, and while the end product looks fresher and more alluring, it is in fact, making them rot faster. So, on your next trip, remember that the most inviting fruits and vegetables might not be as healthy as their seductive exteriors suggest.
4. There’s More To The Floor Than Meets The Eye
Retailers know that the longer you spend in their stores, the more money you’re likely to spend. They can’t just hire people to go around telling you to slow down (or can they? More on that later), so how else can they do it in such a way that will almost make you wanna bang your head on the wall when you find out about it?
Look at the floors of a supermarket the next time you visit one. Notice how most of them feature relatively small tiles? They are used not because of sheer coincidence, but to make your trolley click faster as it rolls on the surface. It’ll trick your subconscious into thinking that you’re traveling faster than you are, and you’ll end up slowing down and spending more time in the aisles, especially the expensive ones.
You’ll also find that kids love to slide around on the floors of supermarkets, mainly because of how smooth the floor is. Genius isn’t it? They make it easy for you to move around, but they too make it easy for you to stop and buy more.
These pictures are taken from different supermarkets, or rather, hypermarkets, yet they use the same small tiles. Coincidence?
5. They Know We Suck At Math
I always found it redundant for supermarkets to allow customers to choose between bagging loose fruits and grabbing packaged fruit straight from the shelves. You guys think that they’re being nice and giving ya’ll options, but again, it’s all just an illusion of choice.
The former are priced by the kilogram, or hundred-grams, while the latter is priced by the item. Which is cheaper?
Your guess is as good as mine.
6. Are You Sure There’s A Discount?
Many of us buy things on impulse simply because they’re supposedly cheaper. It doesn’t matter if we don’t need them; most people will just succumb to the temptation of discounts because that’s how the culture of almost every society is like. As a result, we’ve become accustomed and seemingly programmed to spot these sales labels. We want to save our hard earned cash and get the best deals, which is precisely what the supermarkets want you to think they’re offering.
Do you remember the time when you went into a supermarket and saw signs and large price labels saying that two bottles of shampoo are going at $12, or that three cans of cookies are going at $18 etc. How many of ya’ll thought that that was a discount? Because if you think really hard about it, how can you be sure that that was a discount?
I know, slowly recall your experiences and let that feeling of being outsmarted sink in.
By simply using larger price labels on the racks, retailers are able to exploit our tendency to associate prominently displayed prices with sales and discounts and make us buy more, or even worse, buy things we don’t need, even though the prices advertised are very much everyday prices. The reason supermarkets use a multiple-item pricing model is because they get to clear their stock at a faster rate. They appeal to the misguided side of your brain and make you think that buying two or more of the same item translates into a better deal, when in fact, you can just, more often than not, buy only one to get the advertised pricing (i.e. one bottle of shampoo for $6, instead of two for $12, and one can of cookies for $6, instead of three for $18).
And you guys are complaining about Jover Chew.
7. Again, You Think You’re So Damn Smart
Do you think apple pies/cakes/frozen pastries and ice cream are placed together only because they all need to be stored in a fridge?
We like to think that we’re in control of our actions and that nothing is influencing our decision-making, which is why supermarkets love to pair foods for us. And it’s proven to be damn effective. Tail a family on their grocery run, and you’ll be surprised at how many items they end up buying are just side by side to each other.
8. There’s A Reason We’re Moving In An Anti-Clockwise Fashion
If you haven’t realized yet, the entrances of most supermarkets are on the right side, the checkout counter on the left. What’s the significance of that?
Since you’re moving from right to left, you’re naturally more likely to snap up things from the right hand aisles, where the more expensive items are placed. According to a supermarket psychology discussion with ABC Radio Canberra, counter-clockwise shoppers spend, on average, two dollars more per trip then clockwise shoppers, and while two solitary dollars might not seem much on its own, tens and thousands of shoppers throng into these stores everyday.
Some might argue, wouldn’t the orientation change if we face the other direction? If I’m facing the checkout counter, my right will be different from someone who is facing the back wall for instance. Well, GPS trackers attached to trolleys show that people tend to travel in select aisles, and rarely in a systematic up and down pattern. Most of us don’t fully penetrate the entire length of the lane but instead pull out before heading to the next lane.
Some of you are laughing at the last sentence right now aren’t you you dirty minded creatures.
9. Product Positioning
It goes without saying that the most expensive items or products from renowned brands are positioned at eye level. Groceries are something that, for many, evolves into a chore over time, and most people are looking to get out of the supermarket as soon as possible. Most will end up purchasing one of the first few options they’re presented with, without looking at the bottom or the top.
The cereal aisle is a good example of smart product positioning, The expensive ones, the branded ones, are usually located at around eye level, while those sold in bulk are at the bottom, and the healthy ones on top. It’s easier to tip toe than to potentially embarrass yourself squatting (and it’s quite tiring if you keep squatting throughout your trip), which is something supermarkets are banking on to ‘persuade’ customers to forgo the cheaper options and go for the mainstream brands that everyone are talking about.
In addition, the priciest goods are usually placed at the end of the aisles, taking advantage of people who are in a rush, while items meant to appeal to children are positioned at their eye level.
You skip to the confectionery section where you’re greeted by the sounds of children laughing, which means you can’t help but buy a treat for the kids. Martine Alpins
And, believe it or not, there’s also another reason items appealing to children are placed at their eye level. Not only will their parents be more tempted to purchase them when their kid asks for them, the joy and laughter of the children when they get what they want entices unsuspecting passing adults to stop and purchase the goodies as well, especially in the candy section.
Also, The niche items and category of products remain visible but are usually situated in a remote corner as its users are willing to make an effort to find them.
Finally, it’s common practice for these stores to ‘zoom’ the buyers’ attention into the center. For important items like coffee, shampoo, common hair products, and even toothbrushes where there’s emotional investment involved (people care deeply about what kind of coffee they drink, what kind of shampoo they use, the type of hair products they apply etc.), they’re placed at the center of the lane so they can slowly think and not block the entrances of the aisle.
10. Product Placement
You may notice that there are always products from renowned brands being placed on endcap displays at the end of an aisle. It’s a way for the supermarket to tell you that they’re important, and while you might think that these ‘real estate’ are randomly assigned by the staff, big companies pay huge amount of money to have them situated at these prime positions through payments more specifically known as ‘slotting fees’.
The exact amount will never be disclosed, but these fees can chalk up to over million dollars, providing an alternative source of income for supermarket chains.
So next time when you’re shopping and you happen to chance upon one of those displays, remember that it’s not because they are necessarily relevant to you and other buyers, but it’s rather a case of paying-to-be-there.
11. Promoters Serve An Important Purpose For The Supermarket
Many a times on your shopping trips, you’re offered free food samples by various promoters, frequently meeting several before the checkout counter. While they’re there to promote the brand they’re selling, they actually play a crucial part in ensuring the customers stay as long as possible in the shop.
While exposing you to new products, they also slow you down, which, as mentioned multiple times previously, results in more sales. And it does not only apply solely for food, but for product demonstrations as well, which will always attract crowds all day every day.
There’s also the concept of reciprocity in play.
Reciprocity in social psychology refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much more nasty and even brutal.
It’s hard to say no to someone who had just offered you something free ain’t it? More so if they keep bombarding you with the benefits of something you have absolutely no intention of buying when you step foot into the place. You can stand there like an awkward turtle trying to find a polite way to get out of the mess you suddenly find yourself in while everyone around you is staring at you, or you can pick up the product and move on with your trip, without worrying about negative judgement from total strangers.
Many will choose the latter, unfortunately.
12. The Essentials Are Spread So Far Away From Each Other
Bread, eggs, and milk are three of the most common items on everyone’s shopping list, and they all happen to be located very far apart each other to maximise the ‘surface area’ shoppers cover during their trip. Supermarkets usually position dairy products against the back wall, sometimes pretty well hidden among the massive array of goods, in order to force shoppers to walk through the entire store to get them. And surprise surprise, you’re probably going to pick up other unnecessary things along the way.
At least that’s what many observers think. Another perspective given by Jeff Weidauer, a former supermarket executive, is that:
Milk needs to be refrigerated right away; the trucks unload in the back, so the fridges are there so that we can fill the cases as quickly and easily as possible.
It doesn’t only work for people who have multiple items on their shopping list, but also for people with just one. You see, no matter what you want to buy, you have to at least cover the perimeter of the entire store before you end up with the item you came for and the checkout counter. And chances are you’ll eventually end up with slightly more than what you came in for.
Even if you’re disciplined enough to not give in to temptation, you’ll still be exposed to a plethora of brands and products, which means that the next time you decide to come back on an empty stomach…
13. Placed Against White / Lighting
How do you know you’ve reached the fish/poultry section?
When everything suddenly becomes brighter and whiter.
Meat and fish are usually sold against a white backdrop as it makes them look fresher. The combination of the whites and the reds makes for a tantalizing contrast that would attract more purchases than if the section were painted orange, blue, or even pink.
There’s also clever usage of lighting throughout the supermarkets, where you can often find the fruits section serenaded by warm, mellow light while the meat section are crushed by piercing whites.
There are also situations where both are used, with the white illuminating the object to make it look more tantalizing, and the orange making it feel fresh and happy.
14. Crushed Ice / Finer Ice
I am pretty sure you don’t need fancy crushed ice to keep your seafood from spoiling.
But again, crushed ice has been stereotyped as the more luxurious version of regular ice, with television shows often showing them with expensive delicacies like king crabs and lobsters. This portrayal will, in turn, give the illusion that the seafood is really fresh and sexy, making customers more inclined to purchase them seeing them in a minimalistic setting with a neat placement compared to a wet market mess of clunky ice cubes and shady lighting.
15. The Music
Do you remember ever hearing pop songs in a supermarket? Yea, me neither.
The music playlist of supermarkets usually consists of music with a ‘rhythm that’s much slower that the average heartbeat’, according to branding expert Martin Lindstrom. This results in customers spending more time and money, in the store. Loud and fast-paced music in the meantime only serves to make shoppers move through the store quicker.
That isn’t a bad thing, however, because the festive mood create would create an atmosphere that encourages shoppers to be more loose in their spending since, well, it’s the holidays!
16. They Want To Reward Us For Our Hard Work
The checkout line is widely regarded as one of the most profitable areas of the supermarket, despite how small its area is compared to other sections of the place.
Do you ever wonder why candy and chocolates are placed near the checkout area? Because we’re greedy, and the supermarkets want us to reward ourselves when in fact, we’re spending even more and doing more harm to our bodies. Most of us would think that they deserve something for their hard work, and that’s where the supermarkets take advantage of.
Next, do you ever wonder why magazines are placed near the checkout area as well? Because headlines on the tabloids, pictures of power couples splattered on the covers of gossip magazines, and the hot chick in a bikini you’re doing a terrible job of trying to seem like you’re not looking at her, all contribute to your curiosity, and by the time it’s your turn to pay for your items, you’re likely going to buy the magazine you’ve been browsing while waiting in line.
Finally, do you ever wonder why condoms are placed near the checkout area? The reason has been vastly debated, but I believe the answer is something uncomplicated. You see, how often do you spot people buying condoms after purchasing their groceries, whether they’re using a shopping basket or a trolley? People who are there for these items would head directly to the checkout section, avoiding the entire store altogether (or they would go to 7-11). But you see, it’s pretty awkward for most to just buy a sole pack of condoms, especially when there seem to be more female cashiers than males in Singapore. So, they’ll have to buy something else to decrease the levels of uncomfortableness (I believe that’s a word). And what do they usually get?
Some candy and a magazine.
So, how exactly do you save?
You have probably read some supermarket guides or budgeting websites that tell you to compare coupons, compare prices etc., but while they’re certainly effective to an extent, all your hard work and concentration is going to be usurped by your subconscious making bad decisions on behalf of you.
Now that you are familiar with how supermarkets control your mind, don’t bother trying to avoid these ‘traps’ during your next trip there. You can’t, and you’ll end up spending even longer in the store. In order to alter and influence the choices your subconscious makes, you got to fight it with your subconscious.
The first thing you need to do will be to come up with a shopping list. Not a single soul had a shopping list on their hands when I visited all three supermarkets. It doesn’t work if you merely memorize it in your head; you have to write it down physically on a piece of paper and follow it closely during your run.
When you’ve finished your list, go in with a full stomach. A really full stomach. How do you know if you have a really full stomach? You’ll feel pukish and disgusted when you see your favorite snacks and junk food.
That’s it! Two simple steps.
People often get confused about the concept of saving in a supermarket. The best way to save is not to get the biggest discounts, but to get only what you need. By making a list, you have a clear idea of what you need and will remain focused during your trip instead of wandering about aimlessly, and by going in with a full stomach, you’ll be able to resist the temptation of purchasing items not originally on your list. Sure, your price-matching and brand-comparing might save you a few cents, but it’s redundant if you’re going to spend an additional five dollars on food that are not necessary.
Goulding, Adam. “How Do Supermarkets Play Tricks On You?” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.
Harrison, Paul. “Supermarket Psychology” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 August 2008. Web. 2 January 2015.
Harrison, Paul. “Supermarket Psychology – Entrances, layout and shelving” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 25 July 2009. Web. 2 January 2015.
Harrison, Paul. “Supermarket Psychology: Supermarket Layout” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 14 July 2009. Web. 2 January 2015.
Harrison, Paul. “Supermarket Psychology: Specials, pricing, labelling and packaging” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 14 July 2009. Web. 2 January 2015.
Lubin, Gus. “15 Ways Supermarkets Trick You Into Spending More Money.” Business Insider. N.p., 26 July 2011. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.
Many years of observing people
Do you have any other supermarket-saving tips, or know of other ways supermarkets mess with your brains? Share it with me in the comments section below.
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