No Biggie, Esty, She tells herself. You can whip up some noodles and meat sauce in no time and serve some frozen green beans on the side. Esty is now half way to her daughter’s school and is working out the logistics of her meal with a mental to do list: defrost the meat in water the second I walk in the door, give the kids a snack, head over to the grocery store to quickly pick up the Elbow noodles that Shira likes and marinara sauce. Maybe we’ll even have time to head to the park after the store, she muses.
3:02 pm. The ground meat is defrosting in a bowl on the counter. The bustle of school pickups, greetings, snacks and the daily “how was school today?” discussion have all subsided. She glances at the clock and announces cheerfully, “Time to get your shoes on, we’re all going to the supermarket!” hoping that the enthusiasm in her voice will put a positive spin on the errand. Yoni, her easygoing four-year-old, smiles and runs to get his shoes. Two-year-old Leah responds to her brother’s excitement with a round of applause, then points to her feet and says, “Shoes on, Mommy.” Esty helps Leah with her shoes and notices that Shira isn’t moving.
“Do you want to wear Crocs or sneakers?” She asks her in a pleasant tone, hoping to avoid confrontation with her strong-willed and explosive child. “I’m not going to the supermarket,” says Shira, with all of the disdain a five- year-old can muster, “It’s so boring.”
Esty responds quickly, “We’re going to get some of the elbow noodles you like so we can have them for dinner tonight, and…” she pauses for effect as she plays her biggest card, “everyone can get a small treat if they cooperate.”
Shira lets a small smile escape and turns to put on her shoes while Yoni and Leah begin dancing and singing in response to the announcement. With car seats strapped, seat belts buckled, and a Uncle Moishy CD playing, Esty mentally reviews her shopping list while she drives to the store: marinara sauce, elbow noodles, milk, bananas, and a small treat for the kids.
3:43 pm. Esty unloads the kids from the car and heads to the supermarket. Even though she can carry the few items on her list in a basket, she opts for the large shopping cart since it has seating for Leah. The automatic doors of the supermarket open graciously, inviting them in to the well lit, nicely air-conditioned and spacious store. At the entrance of the store an employee cutting fresh flowers for a display waves and smiles at Leah as they walk in.
The sound of soft-paced, pleasant Muzak fills the air, the sight of vibrant colored strawberries and fragrant oranges delight the eyes, and fresh scent wafting from the bakery tantalize the nose.
Esty, feeling calm and happy, notices the bananas ripened to the perfect buttercup-yellow and grabs a bunch. A bright red sign reading “SALE” catches her eyes and she sees bags of avocados at a reduced price. Without much thought she puts those in her cart as well and continues to meander through the produce section.
4:06 pm. Esty emerges from the produce section with bananas, avocados, and a head of lettuce in cart. She wasn’t planning on buying lettuce, of course, but with fresh droplets of water on the green leaves looking like the morning dew had just kissed this fresh bundle of the earth’s goodness, how could she pass it up? Realizing that this quick grocery run is dragging on too long, she directs her thoughts back to her list and heads to the back of the store to find milk.
On the way they pass a sweet lady in a white apron handing out samples of new tomato basil flavored crackers. Yoni’s eyes widen and Shira whines, “Mommy, can we puh-leese take a cracker? It’s free?” After checking the hechsher, she allows them to take a free sample, and even takes one herself. “They can’t fool me into buying these just by letting me taste one for free,” she notes smugly as she heads toward the dairy aisle, suddenly realizing that she hasn’t eaten since lunch and she’s pretty hungry.
Soon they are stopped in their tracks by a pyramid of tuna cans at the end of an aisle. As Esty tries to navigate the shopping cart around the display she notices the sale: “10 cans for $10.” It’s always good to have tuna on hand, she reasons, as she loads 10 cans into her cart.
She eventually reaches the dairy section and gets the milk. Trying to stay on track, she pivots towards the middle of the supermarket in search of marinara sauce and elbow noodles. Noticing oversized displays blocking her, she takes a detour down the cereal aisle to avoid them. “Shabbos cereal!” Yoni cheers, as he makes eye contact with a cartoonish character on one of the cereal boxes. “I want this one,” Shira says decisively as she reaches for a colorful box positioned at her shoulder level. Acknowledging that they really are low on Shabbos cereal and not wanting to deal with any supermarket tantrums, Esty complies and they continue on their way. After what feels like a long time, they are finally in the pasta aisle and Esty is confronted by floor-to-ceiling boxes of noodles, spaghetti, lasagna and linguini in every shape, size and color. The choices are overwhelming, and by the time she locates the elbow noodles she’s also picked up a new type of spinach-infused pasta that was calling to her from the center of the shelf. When she finally reaches the sauces, she is feeling pretty weary and grabs the first one she sees without checking the price and turns to head out of the store.
4:48pm. Walking down a new aisle in order to position herself at the checkout counter, Esty finds herself slowing down next to the gourmet granola bars. Aware of her grumbling stomach, she puts a box in the cart, reasoning that she needs something to nosh on between lunch and dinner. At the checkout line, she remembers her bribe—er, promise of treats to the kids, who really were very well behaved throughout the errand. “You can each pick out one small treat,” says Esty generously, causing a flurry of clamoring around the lower shelves of junk food conveniently placed along the checkout line.
5:03pm. Esty looks into her large shopping cart which is somehow almost full even though she had only intended to purchase a few small items, and begins to load the groceries onto the conveyor belt. By the time they exit the store the setting sun cues her into the reality of how much time had actually passed while she shopped. No time for the park now! I need to start cooking dinner she realizes, and hurries home to her defrosted meat.
Many busy moms can fully relate to Esty’s fictional experience. A quick run to the supermarket with the kids to get just a few ingredients for dinner turns into a full blown big shopping trip in terms of time and money spent. It’s so normal and mundane that it’s hardly noteworthy. But lurking beneath the surface, deep into the human psyche, behavioral mechanisms are being triggered by ingenious marketing tactics. Through in-depth research, marketing experts have studied consumer habits to understand how humans respond to different stimuli.
Looking back on Esty’s story, we can see many times where she is being tricked to close her mind and open her wallet as she is unwittingly led to spend more money than she intended to. The first trap is the large, oversized shopping cart with a child seat. This tactic is two-fold; a bigger cart encourages the shopper to fill it up, and having children in tow also increases spending. In Martin Lindstrom’s New York Time’s Bestselling Book Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, he shares his findings that by “doubling the size of your shopping cart, you actually are buying up to 40 percent more.” Lindstrom also exposes a store’s hidden motives behind that oh-so-convenient kiddie seat in the shopping cart: “You might think, ‘Wow, this store is really kid-friendly,…[w]ell, retailers are turning up kid-friendly elements because, on average, a consumer will spend 30% more when they have kids with them.”
Then, the second you step foot in the store your senses are assaulted with stimulation aimed to put you in a happy, and therefore happy-to-spend, mood. Right off the bat you’ll probably notice subtle music playing in the background. Rebecca Rupp of National Geographic’s “The Plate” quotes a well known 1982 study about background music which revealed that “people spent 34% more time shopping, with a corresponding uptick in sales, in stores that played music.”
Have you ever wondered why the produce section greets consumers as they enter in almost every grocery store? Rupp explains:
[T]he sensory impact of all those scents, textures, and colors (think fat tomatoes, glossy eggplants, luscious strawberries) makes us feel both upbeat and hungry. Similarly the store bakery is usually near the entrance, with its scrumptious and pervasive smell of fresh-baked bread; as is the flower shop, with its buckets of tulips, bouquets of roses, and banks of greenery. The message we get right off the bat is that the store is a welcoming place, fresh, natural, fragrant, and healthy, with comforting shades of grandma’s kitchen.
On top of that, supermarkets will periodically spray water on the produce to make it look deceptively fresh. Yet Lindstrom reveals that this too is a façade and that the sprayed water actually causes the vegetables to spoil faster. Another consumer-manipulation tactic found in your local produce aisle is the specific shade of yellow of the bananas on the shelf. According to Rupp, “[s]ales records indicated the customers bought more bananas if their peels were Pantone color 12-0752 (Buttercup) rather than the slightly brighter Pantone color 13-0858 (Vibrant Yellow). Banana growers responded by planting their crops under conditions tailored to produce Buttercup.”
Do you recall the red sign indicating a sale on avocados that Esty impulsively reached for? An oft used color-manipulation trick is using red in conjunction with sale offers. According to consumer psychologist Dr. Kit Yarrow, “red is almost always the color associated with sales because it inspires people to take action and it’s a stimulating sort of color.”
When it comes to store layout nothing is accidental. Have you ever noticed that most dairy departments are in the back of the store? Rupp points out that this set up ensures “that customers — most of whom will have at least one dairy item on their lists — will have to walk the length of the store, passing a wealth of tempting products, en route to the milk.”
One of the oldest tricks in the book is the ubiquitous free sample that we all love to stumble upon. Surprisingly, the strategy is not really about tempting the shopper to buy that particular product (though there is a hope that you will feel an obligation to buy it after being gifted some for free). Instead, the sample stations are there to slow you down, hoping that while you’re caught off-track you’ll put more items in your cart. More than that, Lindstrom explains that eating while shopping triggers hunger, “Whenever you grab a sample, you tell your body it’s dinner time, and your brain will tune into the topic of food.”
Another shopper trap is the display at the end of the aisle —known in supermarket lingo as end caps — which Rupp refers to as “hot spots for impulse buying.” In fact, according to data from the National Retail Hardware Association a product located on an end cap will sell eight times more than a product placed elsewhere. It’s no wonder that companies pay high prices to supermarkets to have their items displayed in these prime locations.
When shoppers don’t know prices and don’t think clearly about the logic of an offer, they are vulnerable and can fall prey to bogus sales. One promotional trap is the ten-for-$10 deal. Jeff Weidaur, a former supermarket executive, reveals that stores “take an 89-cent can of tuna and mark it “ten for $10,” and instead of buying six cans for 89 cents, people will buy ten for $10.” Even if the price isn’t artificially raised, this sales model uses the power of suggestion to promote bulk buying and more spending. Harvard Business School professor John T. Gourville explains, “Many people buy the amount, or buy in increments, that are advertised — five for $5, they end up buying five boxes of couscous or whatever it happens to be.” A smart shopper should keep in mind that 1 for $1 is the same deal as 10 for $10.
While consumers may consider a wide variety of products to be a boon, an overwhelming array of choices has actually proven to be worse for the shopper’s wallet. Rupp explains this concept:
The sheer volume of available choice is enough to send shoppers into a state of information overload […]the demands of so much decision-making quickly become too much for us. After about 40 minutes of shopping, most people stop struggling to be rationally selective, and instead began shopping emotionally—which is the point at which we accumulate [stuff] in our cart that we never intended buying.
Marketing products and brands to children is extremely profitable. In a Cornell University study entitled Why Is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child? they studied the shelf placement and eye position of 86 different cereal characters in 10 grocery stores throughout the Eastern United states. This study revealed that cereal’s marketed towards children tend to use packaging with the spokes-characters’ gaze towards a child. According to this study, when a cereal box character is making eye contact with a child it “increase[s] feelings of trust and connection to the brand.” The study also revealed that average height placement of kid-targeted cereals on the shelves was much lower than those marketed to adults, positioning these sugary cereals at the perfect grabbing height for little hands.
Many adult shoppers unwittingly fall into the psychological trap of shelf placement as well. Marketers know that consumers reach for items at eye level. If you start paying attention you’ll notice that the more expensive items are located in the most prominent and easy-to-grab spots on the shelf while the generic brands and cheaper items will be either lower down or higher up. Yarrow adds another dimension to the discussion of item location explaining that “[p]eople really tend to gravitate to the center of displays. We seem to have this sort of homing instinct and there’s research that shows people are more likely to buy something that’s in the center of a display.”
One of the more surreptitious tricks used on supermarket shoppers is literally hiding beneath the floors. Supermarkets actually place “speed bumps” within their floors to slow shoppers down in order to stimulate more spending. According to Lindstrom, “[s]ubconsciously, when we feel those little bumps, we will slow down and look around rather than navigate our shopping cart.[…] On average, the bumps create a 15-second delay, which, in a supermarket study, led to as much as 17% in additional spending as shoppers contemplated additional purchases.” Similarly, some stores make use of different types of flooring, such as having a transition from linoleum to carpet in order to promote lingering in certain locations. Another variation of flooring manipulation is done with tiles of different sizes. When the shopper pushes their cart over the smaller tiles the cart clicks faster as the grout is closer together. Thinking that they’ve sped up, the consumer subconsciously slows their pace. Obviously the smaller tiles are placed next to pricier items.
Like casinos, supermarkets try to remove your connection to the passage of time by eschewing clocks and windows. In a way, shoppers are trapped in the supermarket –they enter through a one way door, and until they’ve traversed the maze of aisles and passed through the narrow checkout lane they are not granted easy access to the exit doors. Everything about the supermarket experience is engineered to create a lingering effect. Some stores even create deliberate obstructions in the form of displays that block the flow of traffic to slow the shopper down.
For those looking to be savvy shoppers, the key is awareness. Knowing that tricks are coming is the first step in fortifying consumers against marketing manipulation. Smart consumers should come prepared with a list and try to stick to it as closely as possible. Minimize distractions — leave the kids at home and consider turning off the phone — as any interruption causes shoppers to lose focus and spend more money. Another tip is to try to space out shopping trips as much as possible just to avoid setting foot in a supermarket too often.
Most of us have fallen victim to many of these marketing tactics, but with increased mindfulness we can steel ourselves against the sneaky psychological traps lurking in our local grocery store.