7 Surprising Tricks Grocery Stores Use to Get You to Spend More

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A Strategy for Everything in the Store

woman paying for groceries

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Even if you make a list and clip coupons before you go to the grocery store, you still need to hold on tight to your wallet.

Around every corner and within every aisle, temptations are waiting. And I’m not talking about the cookies. I’m talking about the methods grocery stores use to get you to spend more.

No matter how strong you think you are, grocery stores have plenty of ways to trick your brain into thinking spending more is a good idea.

Let’s review seven of these sneaky methods that encourage you to throw frugality out the window. How many have you been able to resist?

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1. They Move Items Around

family scratching heads in dairy aisle

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Can’t find that item that’s always on your list? Some grocery stores change the location of items as often as once a month. It’s not always big changes like a complete store reorganization—it’s often a matter of shifting an item five feet down in the same aisle. It’s only natural for a store to move items around to squeeze in new products. But that subtle moment of frustration can wear on you, the shopper.

“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,” retail expert Martin Lindstrom writes in his book, Brandwashed.

Next time you find yourselves wandering the aisles feeling stressed, stop and take a deep breath and reset. Ask a store employee for guidance. And whatever you do, don’t cruise down the cookie aisle for solace.

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2. They Know You Like Bulk Shopping

chicken legs for sale

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Bigger is always better, right? Maybe, but it’s not always cheaper.

Yes, buying in bulk can help you save big time at the grocery store. But before you blindly choose the largest bottle of detergent, take a second look at the unit-price comparison. The unit price is often located on the price tag affixed to the shelf below the product, with phrasing like “$0.59 per ounce.”

If the unit price isn’t listed, divide the price of the item by the number of ounces or other unit of measurement. You might find that the smaller item is a better buy, especially if the product is on sale.

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3. They Arrange Things Just So

grocery store aisle end cap

Photo by Glow Images, Inc./Getty Images

Photo by Glow Images, Inc./Getty Images

Endcaps and in-your-way displays do more than challenge your cart-steering abilities. These colorful displays exist to throw you off your shopping plan. Endcaps are often reserved for promoted products that, even when on sale, may 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,” retail consultant Paco Underhill writes in his book, 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.

Steer carefully… and maybe avert your eyes from the special displays.

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4. They Turn up the Tunes

woman with full grocery cart

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Grocery stores always play the best ballads and smooth oldies, don’t they? There’s science behind that move.

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.

Don’t believe it?

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.

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5. They Send You Amazing Offers on New Services

grocery home delivery

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Free delivery? Forty dollars off a meal kit? These offers aren’t too good to be true, but they can lead you to spend more than you bargained for.

Delivery and pickup services often come at a premium, and signing up for a free trial can get you sucked in to what might really be pricy convenience.

Before trying a new service at a discounted rate, review the fine print. If you’re not willing to pay full price for it, don’t even try it!

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6. They Know You Love Coupons

woman with grocery coupons

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

It’s so easy to be tempted by coupons, especially those that save you a dollar or more on grocery items you’ve already got on your list.

Clip those coupons, sure, but take a closer look when you get to the store. If the brand-name price is still higher than the generic version after the coupon is applied, reconsider: Do you really need that particular brand?

So many coupons—both digital and traditional paper ones—are for new, high-priced items. Manufacturers and stores know that if you try an item and like it, you’re likely to buy it again, even without the coupon. See how easy it is to get tricked into spending more?

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7. They Make Everything Even More Sparkly

grocery store digital tag

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

The newest piece of technology to hit many grocery stores: electronic shelving.

While some electronic price tags look like square, plastic attachments to the edge of the shelf near each product, some models offer a long digital strip along the edge of the shelf.

The best digital tags provide additional information with just a touch—ingredient or allergen info, sale dates or even customer reviews. Others may focus on price information accompanied by seasonal or brand-based graphic design.

While shoppers likely won’t notice grocers changing prices each minute, you may find that promotions and advertisements are catered to you in the aisle. Facial recognition devices, sold with some shelf-front technology, can note an approaching customer’s age, gender or even race to target them for advertising.

Stick to your grocery list and take seemingly targeted messaging with a grain of salt. Grocers can market to you, but it’s up to you to actually pay for products you want.


Lisa Rowan is a senior writer and on-air analyst at The Penny Hoarder, where she covers grocery, retail and consumer affairs.