Grocery Store Science
So, unless you’ve transformed your homestead into a self-sustaining farm, like it or not, grocery shopping on a regular basis comes with the title of being a functioning adult human. But popping into the store to “just grab a few things” and emerging from the depths of Super Target an hour later, tired, bruised, ripping into a Larabar while staring at the 17 random items that you have no memory of putting in your cart… we’ve all been there.
We’ve all been there when our unappeasable kids are screaming for the box of cereal with their favorite Disney character on it.
We’ve all been there when we accidentally did it again; when we’ve gone grocery shopping on an empty stomach.
We’ve all been there when we were hypnotized by the checkout lane products; leaving with three packs of Trident White and a trashy magazine.
We’ve all been there because that’s the science of grocery stores, y’all. Supermarkets not only rely on such behaviors, they encourage them. Things like store geography/layout, colorful packaging, and product placement are intentionally designed to influence our experience and our spending. Here are just a few tips and tricks that will help you get in and out of the grocery store with exactly what you want and need, and not a single cookie more.
- Have a plan: You will never find me grocery shopping without a written list. Having a list (whether physical or digital) will help you stay focused on what you’ve budgeted and help you avoid getting distracted by common grocery-store traps.
- Shop the perimeter: “Shopping the perimeter” is a method of shopping where you try to stick to the outer perimeter of the store, and to only deviate toward the middle aisles with intention. The perimeter of the store is usually home to fresh produce, meat, seafood, dairy, eggs — all components that make up a healthy, whole-foods diet. The middle aisles are typically where more processed, shelf-stable items live, like pastas, bread, rice, canned foods, snacks, and frozen foods. These items aren’t inherently bad, but are more “sometimes foods” and can rack up your grocery bill without paying close attention.
- Enter the experience: Next time you visit the store, take note of what you see upon arrival. Are you greeted with fresh produce? Flowers? That’s because it is the store’s goal and design to create and deliver an enjoyable sensory experience immediately upon arrival. The bonus of visiting this section first is that you fill your cart with colorful produce. And an aesthetically pleasing, full cart of color will help you curb temptation to throw random things in later on in your shopping trip. Also, pro tip: reach to the back of produce shelves for the freshest options. Retailers often will put the older items up front to make sure they are sold.
- Don’t be end-captured: Even when you do your best to stick to the perimeter of the store, you’re sure to walk by many tempting “endcap” displays — a wall of boxed chocolates for Valentine’s Day, a massive display of Dr. Pepper’s positioned like a football for the Big Game, and so on. Brands pay big bucks for this product real estate — similar to the back cover of a magazine. If one of these items is on your list, great! Otherwise, just keep walkin’, boss.
- Spot the sneaky shelves: The placement of items on shelves in a store is not accidental. Believe it or not, favorable shelf placement, what experts call the “bullseye zone”, comes at a steep price for manufacturers. Usually located 2-3 shelves from the top and typically well-stocked are leading brands and bestselling products. A little farther down, depending on the product, you will normally find the “kid’s eye level” shelves. What’s there? Products with kid-appeal; character-themed cereals, colorful fruit snacks or that sugary juice they saw advertised on TV. The top and bottom shelves are reserves for smaller, regional brands and store brands/bulk items respectively.
Knowing this, here’s a tip: when possible, leave your kiddos at home or have them in the cart if they’re small enough. Experts have found that parents tend to spend 10-40% more money when their kids join them on shopping trips. Secondly, remember that name brand items aren’t always better quality than their cheaper store-brand counterparts. In fact, the same manufacturer that makes the name brand product often manufactures the house brand, too.
- Check your impulse: You’ve seen it, and maybe you’ve even fallen victim to it — checkout lane products. Retailers and grocery stores will put tempting and easy-to-grab products by the registers in order to capitalize on your waiting time. Remember: stick to the list, and if at all possible, avoid shopping while you’re hungry.
I hope these insights and tips help you tackle your next grocery store run with awareness, confidence, and neither an extra chip on your shoulder or in your cart.