Supermarket psychology

Supermarkets are carefully laid out to part consumers with as much cash as possible. We explain some of the tricks that you should know about.

Woman shopping with basket

Supermarkets are big business. Last year alone, we spent more than $15 billion at the check-out. But it’s not just grocery staples that are filling the trolley. Supermarkets are carefully laid out to part consumers with as much cash as possible.

Common practices include placing expensive products in prime positions and making purchases more appealing by using fancy displays and offering “special” deals.

University of Otago Professor of Public Health and Marketing Janet Hoek said supermarkets regularly employ “choice architecture” to influence consumer behaviour. For example, before you can get to the plain sliced bread you have to walk through the bakery section. The supermarket is hoping you’ll throw something extra in your basket.

“None of that is accidental, all of it is there to manipulate your behaviour,” she says.

Magnet points

Your supermarket visits likely follow a standard pattern. For the most part, you pick up your groceries in a certain order and rely on the same brands you’ve used for years.

To shake up your weekly shop, supermarkets use subtle prompts such as specials signs and multi-buy offers in the hope you’ll throw a few unplanned extras or pricey swaps in your trolley.

18jul supermarket psychology specials
Supermarkets use subtle prompts such as specials signs and multi-buy offers in the hope you’ll throw a few unplanned extras or pricey swaps in your trolley.

That’s why you’ll find the ends of the aisles filled with impulse buys. They’ll also stock displays of household essentials, snack foods and new products likely to grab your attention.

Aisle-ends are prime real estate for brands to have their products placed as it increases the chances shoppers will pick up an item as they pass by. Products that might require a longer decision-making process are often put towards the centre of the aisle.

Temptation also waits at the check-out. This is where you’ll find the “you’ve-been-so-good-and-disciplined-while-shopping-so-go-on-and-treat-yourself” products.

Sugary treats feature prominently, though some supermarkets are now putting healthier options, such as fruit and water, in the mix. Regardless, hold firm and try to ignore those smaller items begging for your attention on the way out.

Special deals

Supermarkets are infamous for their special offers. These feature prominently in advertising. Bread for $1 and two-for-one deals seem too good an opportunity to miss, right?

When the deals are genuine, specials can offer savings. But they’re also designed to persuade us to make a purchase we may not otherwise have made.

Moreover, products can be on special so often the savings aren’t genuine. Our last supermarket survey found more than half the products in our basket of goods were regularly on promotion.

Stores tempting customers with the promise of a bargain must be offering a genuine deal. If they’re not, they risk misleading consumers and breaching the Fair Trading Act.

Supermarkets feature high on the Commerce Commission’s list of the most complained about traders. Last year, the commission received 98 fair trading complaints about Foodstuffs (owner of the New World and Pak’nSave brands) and 66 about Woolworths (Countdown’s owner). Pricing practices dominated complaints.

Free lunch?

As well as the specials temptation, it’s common to find stands offering free mags and advice sheets. They’re often loaded with recipes and budget-friendly ways to feed a family, with advice from celebrity chefs occasionally added.

Recipes may come in handy when you’re stuck for dinner ideas. But the bonus for supermarkets is that they’ll encourage you to buy extra ingredients or specific brands to boost the stores’ bottom-line.

Online shopping

Online shopping has changed how supermarkets go about their business. Tick the products you want, enter your credit card details and either wait for your delivery to land, or grab it yourself.

Countdown offers pick-up and delivery shopping services across most of the country.

Some North Island New World supermarkets provide online shopping through the “I shop New World” app. The app simulates shopping by having you swipe pictures of items into your basket. Although visually appealing, you get less information about the product up front than on Countdown’s website, which has nutrition information and ingredient lists for some products. Just one South Island New World offers online shopping.

Countdown charges a $12 delivery fee for orders less than $200 and $8 for larger orders. Pick-up is free if your order is more than $50; you’ll pay $5 if it’s less. New World charges $15 for delivery if the order is under $200 and $10 for more expensive orders. Pick-up costs $5 regardless of order size.

A plus of online shopping is how easy it is to stick to a budget, and you have more time to weigh up any deals. However, a downside is that you can’t pick your own produce. You’ll have no guarantee you’re getting prime plums or sublime squash.

Alcohol displays

A major change in supermarket layout in the past decade has been how alcohol is displayed. The Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, introduced in 2012, restricts how retailers display and market alcohol.

All the booze must be in one section. It can’t be on the main drag of the supermarket and beer chillers can’t greet you when you come through the sliding doors. Stores also can’t have signage directing you towards the alcohol section.

Tips and tricks

  • Make a list and stick to it. Impulse buying is what happens when you’re not prepared.
  • Don’t hit the aisles when you’re hungry. If you’re full you’re less likely to be sucked in by the smell of rotisserie chickens or freshly baked scones.
  • Knowing the supermarket layout can save you time and make you adept at avoiding paying over the odds for products placed in prime spots.
  • Always check the regular price of something that’s on special. That deal might not work out to be all that special.
  • Compare the size of products. Look for unit pricing – the cost per 100g or 100ml – to work out if a big box of cereal is better value than a small one.
  • Don’t buy things just because they’re on special. Does anyone in your house even like those cut-price crackers?
  • Move at pace. The longer you spend in the supermarket, the more you’re likely to spend.

Supermarket maze

Supermarket maze
  1. Fruit and vegetables are almost always at the entrance - they portray an image of freshness and healthiness. Having the produce at the front of the supermarket definitely isn’t for the convenience of the shoppers, as your softer fruit and vege are more likely to get squashed at the bottom of your trolley.

  2. Cross-merchandising is where complementary products are placed together. How often have you decided to buy French Onion Soup and Reduced Cream after you’ve bought your chippies? Positioning these combinations together is likely to increase the sales of both.

  3. Aisle ends are always full of special offers, impulse buys, or themed foods.

  4. Perishable foods from the deli, bakery, seafood and butchery sections are usually found around the edges of the supermarket. Sights and smells grab your attention as you’re led past the displays to the packaged goods.

  5. Where are the eggs? Separation of popular staples is a common element of supermarket design. You’ll spend more time wheeling past other temptations.

  6. Staple products such as bread, milk and cheese are placed at the back of the store to make you do a full lap. It’s a decent bet your journey will take you past more exciting items with higher margins for the retailer.

  7. In-store sampling is designed to tempt you to buy new products you normally wouldn’t.

  8. Most check-outs have unhealthy snacks and sweets on display to tempt you and encourage your kids to pester you for treats. High-margin items such as batteries, chewing gum and magazines are also at the check-out. Subtle prodding from the supermarket to waiting customers can make a big difference to their turnover.

Member comments

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Madalene F.
07 Aug 2018
Other issues to watch for at the supermarket

If an item which isn't in the promo mailer as a special, but has been stickered instore for quick sale - usually because it is close to its use by date, be sure the original barcode has been struck through horizontally rather than vertically, otherwise you can end up paying the full price. Not all checkout operators know this and simply ran the item over the barcode reader. And always check your docket before leaving the supermarket carpark. Huge mistakes can happen, eg if the checkout operator inadvertantly puts their hand on the weighing plate. I was recently overcharged $11 on bulk figs when this happened. And also look out for double swipes of the same item. These are not necessarily deliberate actions, but can be expensive mistakes for you.

John v.
04 Aug 2018
Delivery fees

In regards to the delivery fees that Countdown charges, good to know for consumers that you can buy a delivery saver for $69.00. This will last you three months, so comes to just over $5.00 each time based on one delivery per week. You can order as many times as you want in this period, as long as you spend $80.00 or more. Very convenient if you have forgotten a couple of items or you have unexpected guests arrive. This option obviously suits consumers that do online shopping all the time like us.

04 Aug 2018
Incorrect pricing at the check-out

Always check your receipt before you leave the supermarket! Sometimes specials don't get updated at the checkout so you get charged the normal price instead of the discounted special price! Once you are home it is a significant hassle to try to resolve being overcharged.

Countdown have a policy of refunding the full purchase price of the first item purchased if it is incorrect at the check-out (note, you have to pay the incorrect price to get the full refund). While it is not great to be over-charged I think this is fair compensation for the inconvenience.

My local Pak 'n Save on the other hand will simply refund you the difference. This is extremely annoying as it takes about 10 minutes to resolve - not great if you are in a hurry - and all for the sake of small change (usually less than a dollar). It also gives Pak 'n Save little incentive to ensure they are charging correctly at the check-out, putting the burden onto the customer to see they are charged correctly. It got to the point where I was being overcharged on at least one item virtually every visit to Pak 'n Save. Thankfully it has improved but I wish they would adopt a similar policy of refunding the full price of the item to communicate that they take the issue seriously.

Robin & Anita S.
06 Aug 2018
I always check too

It is true that the sale prices are sometimes not updated, I wonder how many people don’t check and pay a higher price. I know it’s a hassle to get a few cents back but I hope it will mean they update the price so all those after me get a fair deal.

Russell H.
04 Aug 2018

Often the refill item is more expensive than the original. Be aware of refills being a smaller size i.e. Maccona refills for their 100gm bottles are only 90gm they are also more often than not more expensive.

Susan D.
04 Aug 2018
Online shopping

Super convenient but come in so many plastic bags, I asked if they could do a reusable bag swap system but they were NOT interested.

John v.
04 Aug 2018
Online shopping

Hi Susan

We also do our shopping online with Countdown. We request for our groceries to be packed in boxes and this is how we receive them every week. No more plastic bags!