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We’re all being manipulated when we shop for groceries. Grocery shopping in grocery stores, start to finish, is a cunningly orchestrated process. Every aspect of the store, from floor plan and shelf layout to music, lighting, a free coffee corner and women in aprons offering free meatballs on sticks is designed to lure you in, keep you there, and seduce you into spending money.
To start off, once you enter a grocery store, it’s often not that easy to get out again. A universal feature of supermarkets is the one-way entry door; if you want to get back out, you need to walk through a good portion of the store, passing by tempting displays of buyables, to find the exit.
After the one-way entrance door, the first supermarket feature you undoubtedly encounter is the produce department. There’s a great reason behind this: the impact of all those scents, textures, and colors on your senses make you feel both upbeat and hungry. In a similar way the store bakery is usually also situated near the entrance, with its delicious and pervasive smell of freshly baked bread; as is the flower shop, with its bouquets of roses, buckets of tulips and banks of greenery. The message you get right from the start is that the store is a welcoming place, fresh, natural, fragrant, and healthy.
The bitter truth is that the produce department is not any more of a garden and kitchen than stage set. Lighting is carefully chosen to make fruits and veggies appear at their best and brightest; a classic kind of customer manipulation is for instance the banana. The signature ripe yellow color is actually the result of extensive marketing analyses. Sales records ahowed that customers bought more bananas if their peels had a Pantone color 12-0752 (also known as Buttercup) instead of the slightly brighter Pantone color 13-0858 (also known as Vibrant Yellow). As a response banana growers started planting their crops under conditions tailored to produce Buttercup.
On a bigger scale, the supermarket is designed to seduce customers into spending as much time as possible within its doors. That’s why dairy departments are almost invariably situated as far from the entrance as possible, ensuring that customers (most of whom will have at least one dairy item listed on their shopping list) will have to walk through the whole store, passing a lot of tempting products, on their way to the milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs. Especially popular items are often placed in the middle of aisles, so that even the most single-minded buyer has a chance to be distracted by alternatives.
Music also encourages us to spend more time in supermarkets: A famous study conducted by Ronald Milliman in 1982 titled “Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers” found that people spent 34 percent more time shopping (with the much wanted corresponding uptick in sales) in stores that played music. And supermarkets (just like casinos) tend to lack external time cues: so there are no windows or skylights. The idea behind all these delaying tactics is simple: The longer you stay in the store, the more stuff you will be exposed to, and the more stuff you will be exposed to, the more you’ll buy. According to experiments conducted by Paul Mullins (and colleagues of Bangor University, Wales) after about 40 minutes of shopping, most people stop struggling to be rationally selective, and rather began to shop emotionally. Exactly at that point we accumulate all the stuff in our cart that we never intended buying.
Even shelf order is optimized from a commercial psychological point of view. The most expensive items are usually placed conveniently at eye level; generic brands are placed on the lower shelves so that you have to crouch to get at them. Foods that are meant to appeal to kids are placed specifically at at kids’-eye-level. The displays at the ends of the aisles— also known as “end caps” in the supermarket business, are real shopper traps. Companies pay premium prices to display their products there, since these are hot spots for impulse buying (so are the spots near or at the checkout counter).
We are further pushed into a certain direction by the size of our shopping carts. Just having a shopping cart increases the chance of you buying more (an invention by grocery-store-owner Sylvan Goldman in 1937). Carts have since tripled in size, and they’re still growing. Researchers found that doubling the size of the shopping cart leads to shoppers buying 40 percent more!
First of all, make sure that you learn which types of food are best for your health. When you go shopping for groceries make a list that contains these healthy foods and stick with it. Try not to shop so often, fewer and more efficient trips to the store are better for your finances. And avoid shopping when you’re hungry.
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