How Your Supermarket Tricks You Every Time You Shop

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The astute super saving shopper is very savvy—or at least that’s what they will tell you if you ask. I have to admit that at one time I thought that I knew it all when it came to bargain hunting my way through the grocery store. After all, I had spent decades working in retail so I did have a leg up on the shopping experience and thought I knew every trick there was to get people to buy, buy, and buy more! But then a new reality set in and I started to have my eyes opened when I began working for supermarket chains as a consultant about 15 years ago. That’s when I learned exactly how supermarkets try to trick you into buying more every week when you make the time to shop!

When you do your grocery shopping, can you believe your supermarket tricks you into spending more? Be aware of these tricks so you can be a savvier shopper.

I wrote last year about the many “tricks” that in general retailers use in your favorite shops, especially around the holidays to get you to dig deep and spend more. (If you’re interested, here’s part 1 and part 2.) But you actually are more influenced each week at the grocery store than anyplace else you shop! Don’t think that’s true? Take a look at this!

Supermarket Tricks That Make You Spend More

What’s that smell?

The moment you walk in the door at your local supermarket, you can smell the bread baking or the rotisserie chicken roasting in the deli section. That’s because stores know those smells will get your salivary glands working. When you’re salivating, you’re a much less disciplined shopper and you then have food pounding not only in the brain but in your tummy too! If you weren’t hungry before you went shopping (which is always a huge no-no), by the time you’ve cruised just a few aisles you may just be! And guess what that means? Yep, more spending.

Was the shopping cart always that big?

Someone figured out by studying grocery shoppers that most people shop aimlessly and pile stuff in their cart and eventually fill it to the top and beyond. So it’s no accident that shopping carts are getting bigger and bigger than ever these days. That’s why you need to plan your shopping trip list and stick to it, if not you’ll probably fall prey to your senses and the atmosphere until you simply run out of room and surrender your credit card at the checkout!

The more you buy, the more you use?

Once upon a time you used to buy a 6-pack of soda at the supermarket and then you’d drink those 6 cans during the week. Next week you do the same and so on and so on. But, nowadays you most likely are buying a 12-pack or a 24-pack of soda because that’s the current standard size you see on the shelves. That’s not any kind of an accident, but actually a winning strategy when it comes to selling!

You’re going to start drinking 12 cans a week when you have 12 cans in your home. When buying larger sizes, the stores know that that can and will make your usage habits change as a result. Think about how many jumbo, giant, and supersized things you hear about and see around these days. It’s science wrapped in a trick!

Is that a good price?

You can’t possibly know the prices of every item your supermarket carries or even the ones you buy almost every time you shop. In fact, most people can only remember the prices of milk, bread, bananas, and eggs. Ninety-five percent of shoppers have no idea what all the other items cost and don’t know if they’re getting a good deal when they buy them. That’s why you need to track the basic stuff you buy all the time and chart the sale cycles and refer to it when necessary.

Don’t fall for the big signs that say “special” or “low low” prices because they mean nothing if you don’t know what actually is a “special” or “low low” price for that item! Stores know you don’t know and will lowball the four that you do know just often enough that you will think they are low priced on almost everything you need. Not true!

Look at all those beautiful fruits!

There are good reasons why the produce and floral departments are usually found at the front of the store. It’s because all of those bright colors put you in a good mood and inspire you to buy more. That’s why I tell people to start their shopping in the middle of the store, with its bland boxes and dull cans and avoid the distractions of all the “pretty” and expensive and probably-not-on-your-list items that scream out “look and buy me”!

“It’s a little bit over, is that ok?”

This one is really annoying, but in some stores it’s practiced like a religion. It’s the act of over-slicing your deli orders. You know when you ask for a half pound of roast beef sliced and the clerk cuts it and says “it’s a little bit over, is that ok?” With that little bit even a couple of ounces can add 1 or 2 extra dollars to your order on every item you buy!

I always say don’t go over when I order anything and if they do, they need to take it off so they are pretty careful when I say it. Hey, my alternate comment is this one…“I’m a little short on the cash, is that ok?” It definitely gets their attention when I use it.

What’s with these checkout lanes?

Over 60% of shoppers off-load some products as they check out. Call it change of heart, second thoughts, some other reason, but because of it the supermarkets have now started making checkout lanes narrower and with less shelf space around them and that means it’s harder to ditch any goods at the last minute. You almost never hand something to the cashier and tell them you changed your mind!

Why is the milk located at the back of the store?

Talk about knowing how to get you to buy more! The stores put all of the dairy products that you constantly use like milk, eggs, and butter as far from the front door as they can for a good reason. It’s because they want you to have to walk lots of the aisles to get to it. The longer amount of time you spend and linger in the store, the more you will probably spend.

It’s the same reason that there is music playing in the background. Often you’ll hear pop songs and even more likely songs from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s—the songs you love that put you in a really good mood which makes you more susceptible to buying. If you notice the music at all, and you probably do, then you are being affected. That, and if you are made to take the long way to the milk, you will pass loads of temptations along the way!

That makes for a good reason to sometimes stop at the convenience store just for that milk or eggs. You won’t be nearly as barraged with “extras” even if you pay a few cents more for the item you do buy!

They make the “cheesy” stuff look classy!

You often see the chunk cheeses in cases on the sales floor near the deli area and that cheese may just be the very same as the ones in the deli case that you buy sliced to order! It seems we like buying those wrapped chunks sometimes done in colored pretty cellophanes either for parties and gifts or just because we like the way they look. They know it and it works! Some of those same cheeses are displayed behind the deli counter without the fancy packaging and they’re much cheaper that way.

Do you know one reason that they spray the veggies?

Yes, it’s true that the stores spray their veggies to keep them fresher and look better, but there is another more sinister reason the stores do it! It’s because the spray actually make the items weigh more on the per pound pricing. Yes, unless you make a point to shake off any water accumulated in packages or on items you are paying for the water too! Think of it this way: if every customer just paid a few cents extra every time they shopped, the store will profit by it in the thousands every month from it.

The buy in bulk trick!

You have been fooled to think that you will always get a better deal when you buy in bulk. But that’s not always the case. In the produce department, individual peppers are almost always cheaper than those in the multi-packs, and loose avocados are usually cheaper than the ones grouped in mesh bags.

Then there’s the buy 3 and save deals when in fact you may get the same proportionate savings when you only but 1 or 2. Unless it says must buy 3 to save then only buy what you need!

The biggest trick applies to the 10-for-$10 promotions and it’s one of the most effective. If you buy 10 of something to save a few pennies then you may be buying way too many and spending way more than you need to. If you need 3 and it costs you $3.27 ($1.09 each) why spend the extra $6.73 just to bring that average price down to $1.00 each?

When a store does it, volume really takes off and it even means that a promotion can actually raises the price of something. Take an $0.89 can of tuna for example and then it becomes part of the “10 for $10” sale group. So, instead of buying the cans which were $0.89 each, people will buy 10 for $10 and spend 11 cents more per can… it happens all the time.

One Way to Avoid the Tricks

f you’re looking to avoid the supermarket tricks, at least some of them, one alternative is to shop online using Shop at Home (SAH) services. You can use Instacart or Peapod to shop your local supermarket and get it delivered to your door (or pick up at the store). Yes, there is a fee, but you may save that using discounts and by sticking to your list, plus you’re saving time. There are plenty of other good reasons to use SAH, including shopping for heavy items, avoiding bad weather, staying home with small children, or physical impairments that make it difficult to shop. It’s worth a try…look for new customer discounts!

Final Thoughts

Nothing the supermarkets do is illegal of course. If it were and it were found out, they’d be fined or worse, go out of business in the end. But, and it’s a big one, they know how to fool you and trick you every time. This short list is only the tip of the iceberg. I can add dozens of additional tricks, some old and some brand new. The bottom line is that grocery shopping is a key part of your budget, and weekly spending can actually make or break your budget too. In order to have a good chance of sticking to your monthly budget, food shopping is the most critical thing you must plan and control to be successful. It’s something you must do and you do it every week!

Do you plan all of your food shopping trips every week? Are you sticking to your budget or do you even use one? What tricks are you aware that are used at your supermarket and how do you avoid them?


  1. Thanks for sharing Gary. I always enjoy reading your tips on grocery shopping. We try and always shop with a list to avoid and Jedi mind trick the stores try and place on you. I have noticed and mentioned before the various prices a store will consider on sale, For example, I’ve seen ice cream on sale at the same store for $2.99, $2.49, $1.99, $1.88, and $1.50. I’d much rather pay $1.50

  2. I never thought about the deli items sliced to order “just a little bit over” being a practice to get customers to spend more. Your response about being short on cash is so funny!

    To save money at the grocery store, I do stick to the outside edges where the produce, meat, eggs are found because unprocessed foods are always cheaper than overly processed and packaged items.

    I have been known to compare bulk prices with packaged items on sale (such as dried black beans, etc.), though. Sometimes the sale price is cheaper than the bulk price, as you noted.

    1. Thanks for chuckling at my joke, it’s too bad it’s more true than funny. 😉 The smarter we are about our shopping habits, the better off we all will be, so it’s good to investigate and evaluate where you think you can guard against any kind of trickery like the kinds I mentioned. Thanks for your comments.

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