Supermarket Outrage: Psychological Traps Make You Spend More

Supermarket Outrage: Psychological Traps Make You Spend More

Story at-a-glance -

  • Food manufacturers and supermarkets employ powerful psychological tools to part you with your money when shopping. Learn the latest tricks of the trade designed to increase your spending during strained financial times
  • Common tactics designed to inspire you to buy include “sales signs” that aren’t really sales. For example, sometimes “2 for $5” signs amounts to nothing as you can buy just one for $2.50 at regular price
  • Through sophisticated “laboratories,” retailers have discovered that something as simple as changing the flooring, removing the dollar sign from the display, and imposing a limit per customer, they can make you buy things you didn’t plan for by appealing to your natural instinct to hoard during hard-pressed times
  • Learn how to navigate through your grocery store to lessen your chances of being swayed to buy on impulse, and how to identify the most healthful food no matter where you shop

By Dr. Mercola

Ever since the global financial crisis of 2008, people everywhere have tightened their belts and cut down on spending, including slicing their food budgets.

But supermarkets employ all kinds of strategies to get you to spend more money, and food manufacturers are applying ever more sophisticated tactics to sell their wares.

First, let's take a look at the simple stuff...

Daily Finance recently listed a few ways to avoid the most obvious traps, including:

  • Resist the smells: Some grocers even pipes in artificial scents to inspire you to buy more.
  • Forget the end caps: The spots at the ends of each aisle contain "sale items" that aren't very cheap -- but which are conveniently placed.
  • Scan top and bottom shelves: The most expensive stuff is often deliberately placed at eye level. Take a moment to scan the entire shelf.
  • Appreciate the plain stuff: Product packaging is usually exceptionally bright. Less-gaudy house brands may be cheaper.
  • Don't fall for hyped numbers: Signs may say "10 for $10," or "2 for $5," but you'll usually get the same price if you buy only one, so do the math!

The High Level Psychology of Successful Retailing

An interesting Time Magazine article by Martin Lindstrom further reveals just how advanced the sales tactics are these days. One of the latest tricks of the trade is to appeal to your natural hoarding instinct during these financially strained times.

Lindstrom recounts his visit to a sales laboratory outside of Chicago last year, where he was given an inside look at the more scientific side of retail.

He describes a large "control room" reminiscent of NASA's operations area, with rows of people intently observing shoppers on hundreds of screens, evaluating their behaviors and reactions to various displays and signage.

"Take a careful look at this lady," said one of the monitors, pointing to a middle-aged woman on the screen. "She's about to enter our latest speed-bump area. It's designed to have her spend 45 seconds longer in this section, which can increase her average spend by as much as 73 percent. I call it the zone of seduction," Lindstrom writes. "The sign in front of the display read: "1.95. Maximum three cans per customer." Before the shopper slowly sauntered off, she had carefully selected three cans for her cart."

How You're Being Subconsciously Manipulated to Buy, Buy, Buy...

What kind of "magic" made this shopper respond according to their predictions? Through sophisticated "trials" such as these, they've determined that:

  • During lean times, primitive survival instincts kick in, prompting you to purchase items that appear to be "limited" in some way. In this case, by restricting the sale to three cans per customer, the shopper's subconscious drive to hoard was aroused.
  • Displaying a dollar sign on the display decreases the likelihood of you making a purchase, because it's instinctively equated with "cost" or "spending." As Lindstrom says, "Removing the sign helps the consumer sidestep the harsh reality of outstanding bills and longer-term financial concerns."
  • Larger shopping carts equate to increased spending.
  • The quality of the flooring can increase or decrease your speed when shopping. Flooring that make "clickety-clac" sounds tend to automatically slow down your pace, which increases the likelihood that some well-crafted sign will catch your attention and lead you to make a purchase you had not originally planned.

While this may sound simplistic, these tactics can be profoundly effective. By simply changing the flooring of that section of the store, removing the dollar sign, and adding a three-cans-per-customer restriction, the sale of that particular canned food increased sevenfold!

"The next time you go grocery shopping, take a look at the signs, the type of floor, and even the carts. Everything has been designed with an eye towards getting you to grab those three cans of something that was not on your list. The more attention you pay to the details, the more aware you'll become of how you're being manipulated," Lindstrom writes.

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Be Aware and Prepared When Shopping to Reduce Wasteful Spending

You can avoid some of these manipulation tactics by:

  • Shopping with a list: Preparing a list will help keep you focused—ideally on fresh, whole organic foods. Only buy what you need.
  • Shop the store's perimeter: The outermost edge of the supermarket contains the healthier, non-processed foods. Once you become serious about healthy eating, you'll rarely have to venture into the aisles.
  • Focus on fresh vegetables: The deeper and more vibrantly colored produce is packed with the most nutrients. They're also usually less expensive than canned versions.
  • Check the nutrition labels: The label helps you to identify ingredients, maximize nutrients and compare products.
  • Do your own math, and check the per unit price: Bring a calculator with you to the store or use your smartphone. As previously stated, signs boasting "2 for $5" may not be an indication of a bargain at all. Check the individual price to determine whether buying two is really cheaper than just one.

    Also remember to compare sizes when evaluating the price of competing brands. Additionally, manufacturers of various products have begun tinkering with the pricing formula for multi-packs. It used to be that multi-packs were cheaper per unit than smaller or individual packs, but today you'll frequently find that smaller packages are cheaper per unit! Again, it can pay to pay attention to the details...


Why Processed Foods Can Rack up Your Food Bill

Many are still under the mistaken impression that processed or prepared foods are less expensive than whole foods. However, in reality, prepared foods can cost up to double the price of the unprepared versions, so buying whole foods that you can make into meals, rather than buying prepared foods in a box, can actually lead to great savings.

More importantly, by skipping the processed foods, you'll also cut down on your chances of inadvertently serving your family genetically modified foods.

Genetically modified (GM) foods in the US food supply currently carry no labeling requirements whatsoever. Unfortunately, over 90 percent of both US corn and soy crops are GM, and these two foods or their many derivatives (soybean oil, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, modified food starch, tofu, etc) are the most common ingredients in processed foods.

This means if you're eating any processed foods you're likely getting a daily dose of GM corn or GM soy or their many derivatives. These are also the most heavily sprayed crops in the history of agriculture, so you're also getting far more pesticides and herbicides.

Last but not least, there are even bigger, indirect savings that come with eating whole foods.

Consider, for example, the difference in medical care needs between those who eat whole foods, and those who instead eat processed and factory farmed foods containing MSG, carcinogens or nerve poisons such as pesticides, trans-fats, massive amounts of sugar, and artificial synthetic sweeteners.

The food you buy can have a very direct impact on your overall health, and influence whether or not you will become chronically ill. The question is, will you spend a little more now, or a lot more later when your poor diet habits start taking their toll?

You are up against very sophisticated strategies and tens of billions of dollars in advertising and marketing designed to convince you that processed food is either harmless or somehow good for you, when in fact it's a nutritional disaster that should be avoided entirely. To take control of your health you have to cut through the slick advertising and psychological sales tactics, plan your fresh, healthy meals, make a shopping list and stick to it. It's not rocket science, but it does take some work on your part.

Healthy Shopping Guidelines

Once you've implemented the basic strategies listed above, the following guidelines can take you one step further in your quest for healthful food:

Learn to identify:

High-quality food -- Whether you're shopping at a supermarket or a farmer's market, here are the signs of a high-quality, healthy food:

  1. It's grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers (organic foods fit this description, but so do some non-organic foods)
  2. It's not genetically modified
  3. It contains no added growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs
  4. It does not contain artificial anything, nor any preservatives
  5. It is fresh (if you have to choose between wilted organic produce or fresh local conventional produce, the latter is the better option)
  6. It did not come from a factory farm
  7. It is grown with the laws of nature in mind (meaning animals are fed their native diets, not a mix of grains and animal byproducts, and have free-range access to the outdoors) When it comes to beef, look for grass-fed varieties
  8. It is grown in a sustainable way (using minimal amounts of water, protecting the soil from burnout, and turning animal wastes into natural fertilizers instead of environmental pollutants)

Organics – There are a few different organic labels out there, but only one relates directly to foods: the USDA 100% Organic seal. It's the best way to ensure you're getting what you pay for when shopping organic.

The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients. In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. (For the complete National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the USDA organic label, see this link.)

Genetically modified foods – Avoiding genetically modified (GM) food is just as important for your health as seeking out high-quality organics. In fact, they go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, GM ingredients are everywhere, so whenever you use pre-made, pre-packaged, processed foods of any kind, GM becomes an issue.

Fortunately, has created a Non-GMO Shopping Guide, available for free at By making sure to avoid all GM food products, you will actively help change not just your own health for the better, but the entire food industry.

Other health-harming ingredients – This is quite a bit trickier, since there are a vast number of additives, preservatives and food colorings that can wreak havoc with your health in the long term. However, I would suggest starting with the most obvious culprits, including MSG, artificial sweeteners, and fructose. Here are helpful guidelines for each:

  • MSG – A great resource on how to find hidden sources of MSG, please see the website for detailed listings
  • Fructose – Any time you see 'corn syrup' or any variation thereof, on the label, avoid it, especially if it's at the top of the list of ingredients.

    In his book, The Sugar Fix, Dr. Johnson reviews the effectiveness of reducing fructose intake to help prevent or treat obesity. His book also provides detailed tables showing the content of fructose in different foods, including whole foods, like fruits – an information base that isn't readily available elsewhere.
  • ALL artificial sweeteners should be avoided, including:

    • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, Canderel, and AminoSweet)
    • Sucralose (Splenda)
    • Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One)
    • Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low, Sugar Twin)

You can easily be led astray if you don't know what to look for, so please, educate yourself on what 'healthy food' really is, and the subversive sales tactics used to lure you into buying less than healthful fare. There are few, if any, shortcuts to real health and it all starts with what you feed your body, so make educated choices.