8 Sneaky Games Your Grocery Store Is Playing to Make You Waste Money

A couple grocery shop with their young daughter.
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You think you have your grocery store figured out.

You shop the perimeter to focus on fresh food instead of getting swayed by the packaged stuff. You go early in the morning or late at night to avoid crowds. You even figured out precisely when the store restocks after the busy weekend and which of the baggers will never, ever crush the eggs.

But do you really know your grocery store? Within those thousands of square feet of perfectly perched merchandise, can you tell which elements are there to help you — and which ones are there to trip you up?

How to Outsmart Stores and Save Money on Groceries

Stores use these eight tactics to get you to spend more at the supermarket without you even noticing. Here are their tricks — and how to outsmart them.

1. They Entice You to Head Right

The entrance is typically on the right for a reason: to encourage shoppers to move counterclockwise through the store. Since most people are right-handed, it’s easier to steer with your left hand and grab with your right, branding expert Martin Lindstrom explains in his book “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.”

Pro Tip

When you go counterclockwise, you spend $2 more per trip on average, according to consumer data. Hang a left next time you hit the store to save on groceries.

2. They Place Unrelated Products Together

If you’ve ever found tortillas and salsa in the same aisle, you’re being played by an adjacency. Same goes for if you find plastic sandwich bags displayed in the bread aisle instead of in the paper/plastic aisle or a display of charcoal briquettes next to the frozen burger patties instead of in the seasonal section.

By placing several unrelated products together, grocery stores in fact target a specific customer: the one who is tired of circling the store trying to find what they need.

“Adjacencies are also about order — coming up with a sensible sequence of things,” Paco Underhill writes in “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”

But while those grouped items are convenient, they aren’t necessarily cheaper than the variety you might find in other parts of the store.

3. Carts Keep Getting Bigger

Liam Bedingfield, 4, and Lofta Bedingfield, 7, push carts around inside Safeway in Largo, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

Between 1975 and 2000, grocery carts tripled in size. There are several conflicting theories about why, including Ralph Nader’s conclusion that grocery stores were shaming us into buying more every time we visited.

The cause of this growth is hard to pin down — almost as much as whether it really affects shoppers. Just remember that choosing to push a cart around doesn’t mean you have to fill it to the brim every time you shop.

4. X Marks the… Hey, Wait a Minute

Can’t find that item that’s always on your list? Some stores change the location of items as often as once a month. It might be a matter of moving a brand of cereal 5 feet down the aisle or putting something in a completely different area of the store.

“The result is that not only are we tempted by more products,” Lindstrom writes in “Brandwashed,” “but finding what we want becomes a game of sorts, at the end of which we often reward ourselves for our hard work by buying something that wasn’t on our list.”

Pro Tip

Check out these 28 things most of us don't do to save money on groceries all the time.

5. Angles: Not Just Important for Selfies

Endcaps and in-your-way displays do double duty to wear you down while you’re shopping.

Endcaps are often reserved for promoted products that, even when on sale, may still be more expensive than the house brand. Or they may simply appeal to your senses and distract you from your list.

“An endcap can boost an item’s sales simply because as we stroll through a store’s aisles we approach them head-on, seeing them plainly and fully,” Underhill writes in “Why We Buy.”

Ever had to wiggle around free-standing displays on either side of an aisle? The store probably stacked those featured products in the display and placed them at an angle to grab your attention — or grab a corner of your cart.

Pro Tip

Remember, just because something is on an endcap or a special display doesn’t mean it’s the best price.

6. The Smells Are Free

Grocery stores have recently revived their focus on freshness, but it isn’t just about getting you in the door. It’s about appealing to your senses once you get there, too.

“It’s true that with the exception of the produce aisles, supermarkets have no tradition of feeding our desire for sensory stimulation, for scent or taste or touch or even sight,” Underhill explains. “They’re still stuck in the early ‘60s, the time of frozen food, canned food, processed food, powdered food, packaged food and the germless ideal of blinding white cleanliness.”

But you can probably point out where your local store has added elements of “sensual shopping” in recent years. Maybe it’s more varieties of bread made in the bakery or the coffee aisle where you can fill a bag with aromatic specialty beans. An expanded florals section?

Yep, it’s all as strategic as it is convenient.

7. They Turn Up the Muzak

Samuel George and his grandchildren Jonathan George, 3, and Alayah George, 1, shop at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Ever found yourself crooning along with the smooth oldies playing while you shop?

Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book “Coercion: Why We Listen to What ‘They’ Say” that shoppers make 38% more purchases when a grocery store plays Muzak with a slower tempo.

Marketing professor Ronald Milliman studied shopping habits at a Dallas grocery store for two months to determine the effects of various tempos of music. Most shoppers couldn’t recall whether they heard music in the store, but when slow music played, the store made about $4,000 more that day.

“People simply, as you slowed them down, saw more they remembered they needed… or wanted,” Milliman told Freakonomics Radio.

Get caught up in the music, and your grocery budget could get caught up, too.

8. Coupons: A Gateway to Spending

Ever glanced at a manufacturer’s coupon for a new product and wondered if you’ll like it? “It’s 25% off,” you might think. “I’ll give it a try, just this once.”

“Based on marketers’ data, consumers who try a new product are likely to stick with it for an average of a year and a half,” Lindstrom writes. “So if a store can figure out what new product you might like and offer a free sample or coupon or promotion persuading you to try it, it’s potentially locked up your dollars for the next 18 months.”

The next time you think about ripping a coupon from a blinkie machine, take a second look at the product’s price tag.

Meanwhile, fewer than 3% of manufacturer’s coupons ever get redeemed, according to Underhill. Think twice, clip once?

By avoiding store trickery and doing a little legwork before you shop — here are more ways to save on groceries, including shopping apps to help you plan your grocery list — you can satisfy your wallet and your stomach.

Lisa Rowan is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.