Save money by spotting these 10 sneaky tricks grocery stores use — that force you to overspend

Source: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

Yes, yes, you already know brands have sneaky ways to manipulate you into lusting after high-end products. And you might realize many businesses are collecting personal data to help target you with advertising and more.

Yet the mind games don't stop there. Even in your most quotidian activities, companies find small ways to squeeze out more profits — from your wallet. The grocery store is a hotspot where retailers use multiple tactics at once.

Maybe you think you're in control, with an organized shopping list, and a hard rule against impulse purchases. More power to you! But you need to remember that stores use exhaustive consumer research to carefully craft your shopping experience and maximize your spending. That's why grocery stores place the most expensive items at eye level — while putting lower cost products in hard-to-reach, out-of-sight locations. Sneaky.

Grocery shopping is tiring and tedious enough as it is. And now it turns out we're being psychologically manipulated too?

Source: Giphy

Don't fret: Information is power. Here are 10 super tricky grocery store moves that might get you to spend more. But once you're aware of them, you can fight the stores' attempts to manipulate you — and take back control.

1. Purposefully disorienting customers

Stores are intentionally laid out in a disorienting way so that it takes more time to find what you're looking for. And the more items you walk by, the more likely you are to make impulse buys. 

The proportion of unplanned purchases made by shoppers who visited more aisles was about 68% — compared to 51% for shoppers who walked down fewer aisles, according to a report commissioned in part by the Marketing Science Institute

2. "Charm pricing" and false promises

Grocery stores deliberately price items to make you think you're saving money when you're not really: There's "charm pricing," where an item is one or two cents below a round number (like $9.99).

"Whenever you see a product priced at $29.99 or $9.98, the store is attempting to 'charm' your brain by marking prices just below a round number,"  Kyle James, retail expert and RatherBeShopping.com founder, told Mental Floss

"Because our brains are trained to read from left to right, the first digit is the one that sticks in our head and the number we use to decide if the 'price is right,'" James added. "This phenomena is known as the 'left-digit effect' and studies have shown that it absolutely works and has a big impact on our buying decisions."

Then there are deals that aren't really deals — like telling you get two for one, when the price of each item is not actually discounted. Think: a $5 deal for two bottles of juice... that cost $2.50 each. Generally, the best way to avoid this is to check out the unit price instead of the listed price.

3. Giant shopping carts

Those gargantuan shopping carts are intentionally designed like that to trick your brain: When you double the size of a shopping cart, consumers will buy 40% more, marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom told Today.

"In Whole Foods, the shopping carts over the last two years have doubled in size almost," he said. 

4. "Open the wallet" pricing

This technique involves placing seemingly cheap items (a big "SALE" sign must a mean big discount — right?) in proximity to the entrance, so you are tricked into believing you're starting your shopping expedition by saving money.

These are items you probably weren't planning to buy, but the deal-hunter in you gets excited. Grabbing that treat and tossing it in your cart puts you in a good mood — and makes you more inclined to spend even more elsewhere in the store.

5. Playing music — with a slow beat

In one study on the influence of music on consumers, published in in the journal Procedia Economics and Financerespondents said pleasurable music in the background increased the likelihood they'd spend more time and money in the store — and thwarted their negative emotions. 

Supermarkets also tend to play music with a slower beat so you move through the aisles more slowly, increasing the likelihood you'll stop to pick up items. 

6. Placing dairy far from the entrance

Dairy is one of the most popular grocery categories — and you may have noticed it tends to be miles from the entrance. That's not a coincidence.

This forces the consumer to walk by more grocery items and, you guessed it, exposes them to more opportunities to buy things they don't need... like an ergonomic, bacteria-free sponge.

7. Putting popular items in the center of aisles

The most popular items and brands are often placed in the middle of aisles, which forces you to walk by way more products than you otherwise would.

All those extra goodies you're exposed to on your shopping mission increase the likelihood of an unplanned purchase. You came for the toilet paper, but left with a plate of pitted dates. Good for your fiber intake — bad for your budget.

8. Presenting a feast for the senses 

The smell of freshly baked bread and rotisserie chicken is a more well-known tactic supermarkets use. When were hungry, we're more likely to buy more.

This effect is compounded by colorful produce up front, which can be pleasing and exciting to the eye. The combo of nice smells and pretty colors puts us in a good — or at least better — mood, making us more willing to make unplanned purchases.

9. Overwhelming shoppers with options

Literally tens of thousands of items are on offer in your average supermarket. And that demands a lot of decision-making. Brains scans examined by Bangor University, Wales, reveal that we can only keep this up for about 40 minutes, at which point we kind of get tired and give up. 

Once we've given up, we start to make emotional purchases — aka impulse buys — and this can lead to as much as 50% of purchases being unplanned. 

10. Narrowing the checkout lanes

Grocery stores have also made their checkout lanes purposefully narrow. This is so that when you're unloading, if you suddenly realize you've impulsively and regretfully thrown in a $15 small bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice, it's too hard to get out of the checkout lane to go and put it back.

JT's excited to shop at the grocery store — probably because he knows how to outsmart the shop.
Source: Giphy

So: Now that you're wise to the grocery stores' ways, let the student become the master. Go forth, take control and save money.

Sign up for The Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic’s creditsavings, careerinvesting and health care hubs for more information — that pays off.