The science that makes us spend more in supermarkets, and feel good while we do it

The science that makes us spend more in supermarkets, and feel good while we do it
Mustn’t fall for these tri - ooh half price! Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

When you walk into a supermarket, you probably want to spend as little money as possible. The supermarket wants you to spend as much money as possible. Let battle commence.

As you enter the store your senses come under assault. You will often find that fresh produce (fruit, vegetables, flowers) is the first thing you see. The vibrant colours put you in a , and the happier you are the more you are likely to spend.

Your sense of smell is also targeted. Freshly baked bread or roasting chickens reinforce how fresh the produce is and makes you feel hungry. You might even buy a chicken "to save you the bother of cooking one yourself". Even your sense of hearing may come under attack. Music with a slow rhythm tends to make you move slower, meaning you spend more time in the store.

Supermarkets exploit to increase their profits. Have you ever wondered why items are sold in packs of 225g, rather than 250g? Cynics might argue that this is to make it more difficult to compare prices as we are working with unfamiliar weights. Supermarkets also rely on you not really checking what you are buying. You might assume that buying in bulk is more economic. This is not always the case. Besides, given that almost half of our food is believed to be thrown away, your savings might end up in the bin anyway.

Strategies such as those above get reported in the media on a regular basis. Mark Armstrong analysed retail discounting strategies for The Conversation last year, for example, and the Daily Mail recently published a feature on making "rip offs look like bargains".

You might think that awareness of these strategies would negate their effectiveness, but that doesn't appear to be the case. It would be a strong person that does not give way to an impulse buy occasionally and, for the supermarkets, the profits keep flowing.

The science that makes us spend more in supermarkets, and feel good while we do it
Fresh produce at a supermarket
Product placement

There are marketing strategies which you may not be aware of that also have an effect on our buying habits. Have you ever considered how supermarkets decide where to place items on the shelves and, more importantly, why they place them where they do?

When you see items on a supermarket shelf, you are actually looking at a planogram. A planogram is defined as a "diagram or model that indicates the placement of retail products on shelves in order to maximise sales".

Within these planograms, one phrase commonly used is "eye level is buy level", indicating that products positioned at eye level are likely to sell better. You may find that the more expensive options are at eye level or just below, while the store's own brands are placed higher or lower on the shelves. Next time you are in a , just keep note of how many times you need to bend down, or stretch, to reach something you need. You might be surprised.

The "number of facings", that is how many items of a product you can see, also has an effect on sales. The more visible a product, the higher the sales are likely to be. The location of goods in an aisle is also important. There is a school of thought that goods placed at the start of an aisle do not sell as well. A customer needs time to adjust to being in the aisle, so it takes a little time before they can decide what to buy.

You might think that designing a good planogram is about putting similar goods together; cereals, toiletries, baking goods and so on. However, supermarkets have found it makes sense to place some goods together even though they are not in the same category. Beer and crisps is an obvious example. If you are buying beer, crisps seem like a good idea, and convenience makes a purchase more likely. You may also find that they are the high quality brands, but "that's okay, why not treat ourselves?"

This idea of placing complementary goods together is a difficult problem. Beer and crisps might seem an easy choice but this could have an effect on the overall sales of crisps, especially if the space given to crisps in other parts of the store is reduced. And what do you do with peanuts, have them near the beer as well?

Supermarkets will also want customers to buy more expensive products – a process known as "upselling". If you want to persuade the customer to buy the more expensive brand of lager, how should you arrange the store? You still need to stock the cheaper options, for those that are really are on a budget. But for the customers that can afford it, you want them to choose the premium product. Getting that balance right is not easy. My colleagues and I are among the researchers striving to develop the perfect algorithm taking into account size, height and depth of shelves, to direct customers to the right product, at the right time.

Shoppers won't always obey the science, but these techniques are retailers' most effective tools in the fight for our weekly budget. The battle between supermarkets and their customers continues.

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Australian study: Store brands battle quality perceptions

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User comments

Mar 08, 2014
Doug: LOL. As the original author of this piece, I would hope that research would be able to help you but if you have been doing this for 105+ years, then you must be doing something right. Just keep doing !

Mar 09, 2014
The vibrant colours put you in a good mood,

as you are the original author, perhaps you could answer a few questions like:
what about people who dislike loud vibrant colors?
Does it affect them differently?
What about people who tend to have lists, calculators and shop around for the best purchase? (meaning: I know you take this into consideration, but how much do the tactics effect the non-average shopper who tends to have an almost OCD approach?)

I am mostly curious.

Mar 09, 2014
Captain - I answered you on email, but copied here

Many thanks for your email. You pose good questions and the answer is I don't know. Colours will have an effect, else shops would not spend so much time on designing packaging and brand, but how they particular buying habits, I don't know. I am also not aware of any scientific literature on this topic - but I am sure that there is some.

For people who go in with lists, stick to certain aisles etc. then there is probably little supermarkets can do. But bear in mind, their marketing is ALWAYS there - somebody's resistance to it only has to waver - and they got ya!

But, of course, most people are not as regimented and impulse buying, not comparing prices, being caught up in offers is normal practice.

Thanks again.


Mar 10, 2014
Consumers go to market to buy goods they need and/or desire, that individuals might hold differing circumstantial expense limits is simply a fact.

That markets want to sell products is simply a fact, and, that markets use various strategies of product placement, and create a pleasant environment is merely a rather obvious fact.

I want to buy an apple, the market has many varieties available, ranked according to price. I select the apple I want that fits within the range of what I intend to spend.

A straight-forward exchange of value for value is not a "battle."

I see no conflict. I question your contrivance.

Mar 10, 2014
I go to art museums to view paintings. Art museums create a pleasant environment and employ lighting creatively to enhance my viewing pleasure. Artists use strategies of color and form to draw the viewer's interest. Would you suggest that the viewer of art in a museum is under "assault?"

The words "battle" and "assault" are weighted terms – the word battle implies conflict and assault implies both an assailant and a victim. I would suggest you describe fantasy, not reality. There is no battle, there is no assailant, there is no victim and no assault has taken place.

I go to market to buy goods just as I go to a museum to view art, the artist is not an assailant and the museum has performed no nefarious action by its employment of a pleasant environment and creative use of lighting.

Your contrivance is absurd. I question its purpose and intent. If your purpose were to merely inform – then why impose this distortion? Do you believe that people are better informed by contrivance and a distorted view of reality? I think it can be argued that they are not.

Mar 10, 2014
I am also not aware of any scientific literature on this topic - but I am sure that there is some.

There is tons.
I spent some time poring over manuals compiled by our national army (Bundeswehr) on 'usability resaerch' ... basically anything that will make you either react automatically, put you in the right frame of mind or will allow you to grasp information in the most efficient way.
(I was designing an 'innovative' UI for a company at the time as part of a project and found these tomes gathering dust in one of their bookcases. Fascinating read!)

Color, contrast, number of items presented at one time, placement (even relative placement) does play an important part as to knee-jerk responses. And that is what intuitive UI (and I'd hazard shop displays) go for.

The few people averse to vibrant colors (or the calculator shoppers) are so few that it doesn't matter that they are put off. (Lacking an alternative it also makes no difference in outcome)

Mar 10, 2014
@ antialias_physorg

I don't know where this population of semi-conscious zombie-automatons actually exists – I suspect it is entirely imaginary. Having lived in cities from one end of the Americas to the other, and traveled extensively across a span of fifty years I have never observed them.

In my observation, if budgeting is tight, people are exceedingly deliberate in their choices, and if it is not, people buy what they want regardless of expense.

I find the offhand claims – that deliberate conscious decision making is rare – to be entirely specious and somewhat over-strident.

Mar 11, 2014
In my observation, if budgeting is tight, people are exceedingly deliberate in their choices

Even then you can dupe them. People aren't perfect. Put the bargains away from places where they expect them to be. E.g. I have seen supermarkets have aisle of goods (e.g. pasta, rice, etc.) but have the really cheap stuff semi-hidden somewhere else. So the 'bargain shopper' will grab the cheapest stuff from the aisle - but not the cheapest stuff in the store.

Many are also not particularly numerate - especially those that are on a tight budget (because the reason they ARE on a tight budget is sometimes that they can't handle money or don't have a good job for lack of education). Those are easily confused by various packet sizes.

Also: If a larger size is cheaper it is more likely to spoil before being used up - causing the shopper to actually spend MORE money buying the economy size stuff (on average) than if they had bought the smaller (more expensive!) size.

Mar 11, 2014
@ antialias

None of my statements depend on perfection, however many points in your argument do.

Moving products to lower shelves or elsewhere is not a "perfect" insurmountable obstacle to the aware individual, and such individual's represent the norm – not the exception as you assert. That differing weights and package sizes may be employed is also not a "perfect" insurmountable obstacle – the practice is widely known.

My argument depends only on the fact of awareness: that people conscious of their intent and aware of their environment – i.e. able to apprehend the situation in all dimensions which pertain – can and do succeed in their goal. This is not perfection – it is the normal state of being.

Your argument is fallacious in that it asserts a form of perfection (in regards to product placement and package size and weight) while it evades the normal fact of human awareness and cognition.

I will point out but not address the gratuitous ad hominem - your middle paragraph.

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