Supermarket psychology

Supermarkets use clever psychology strategies to entice customers to spend more time on the floor, buy extra goods, and move quickly to checkouts at closing rime, writes John Cradden.

Thursday August 26 2010

HAVE you ever found yourself muttering under your breath that you have to traipse almost all the way through your local supermarket just to get a loaf of bread or a carton of milk?

Why can’t they have essential items near the front of the store?

Well, if you’ve ever read anything about supermarket psychology, you will know that this is one of a number of common tricks used by big supermarkets to get you to walk past items you didn’t plan on buying — and therefore spend more money that you intended.

It certainly appears to work. A survey of members of UK consumer association ‘Which?’ from last year found that two-thirds said they spent more than they intended at the supermarket.

More than seven in 10 said they go for special offers if they see them.

But the same survey also revealed some psychological tactics that British shoppers actively dislike.

Almost three quarters said they get annoyed when groceries are moved to different aisles.

This is a classic tactic designed to tempt you with other items while you try and track down the items you really wanted.

And almost six in 10 respondents said its manipulative when supermarkets place products that appeal to children on the lower shelves to catch their eye.

“There are a lot of examples of this,” says John Ruddy, editor of grocery trade magazine ‘Checkout’.

“Some supermarkets have been known to pump the smell of fresh bread around stores to entice customers to buy it.”

Music is another very interesting area, says Mr Ruddy.

“Playing fast, high tempo music when you want people to hurry up, such as when the store is closing, or slow, relaxing music during the day, to make people slow down and take their time — and buy more items.”

Of course, such tactics are part and parcel of the careful planning that goes into placing items on supermarket shelves and how much space they occupy.

Manufacturers are aware of this too, and will often be prepared to pay extra for placing their items at the most desirable locations, such as shelves at eye-level, and perhaps with eye-catching shelf labels specially made.

Needless to say, the supermarket trade wouldn’t describe such tactics as underhand.

“The point I would make is that retail is a game,” says Mr Ruddy. “It’s about trying to sell as much as possible to a consumer that may not want to buy the product.”


So understanding some of the rules of the supermarket psychology game may well prove one of the most effective ways of helping you save money on your weekly shopping bill.

For instance, focus on the value of any tempting promotions rather than accept at face value that you are getting better value.

“Shoppers often buy on promotion because they like promotions, but they don’t always take into account what the promotion actually means,” says Mr Ruddy.

“They might buy two for €5.50 when the cost of two units at the regular price might be just €5.60.

“Yet people will see ‘deal’ and buy it because they like to think they are beating the supermarket.”

Some supermarkets apparently do things like make some packaging more austere so that people will think it’s cheap just because it looks cheap, even if it is not actually that cheap, or create ‘value’ sections which are full of ‘discount’ that are less than generous.

While store layout is a crucial part of supermarket psychology in terms of getting people to shop at a store in a way that makes them spend more, many managers will know that they have to get the balance right, says Mr Ruddy.

“There’s no point in making it too easy for a shopper to only buy what they want, but at the same time, you can’t make it too difficult for them to buy it, because then you will irritate them and lose the sale.”

So what other tactics are worth learning about? According to research by ‘Which?’, fruit and vegetables are often located at the front of your local supermarket in order to represent the healthy, fresh image that the supermarkets want to portray.

This is also the same rationale for almost always putting alcohol at the back of the store so as not to undermine this healthy image too much.

You will often find sweets at checkouts, which are very tempting not just for children but also tired shoppers.

Of course, shoppers can try to beat the retailer by considering promotions carefully, shopping in more than one supermarket, sticking to shopping lists and not being tempted by new products or deals.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent

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