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Danger in Aisle Six! Four Spendy Spots in the Supermarket

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I walked into the grocery store last night with the intention of grabbing a few things for dinner. Forty-five minutes later, I walked out with a lighter wallet, two full bags of groceries, and only the vaguest idea of what was in them. Why did my in-and-out shopping trip turn into an almost hour-long session of meandering through aisles? How did a couple of ingredients for dinner multiply into boxes of cereal, canned goods, and shaving gel? And more important, why does this happen to almost everyone I know? 


Here’s a refreshing fact: we’re not entirely to blame for our lack of impulse control. Studies have shown that we make anywhere from 20 to 75 percent of buying decisions once we’ve already started shopping. That’s because there are forces at work in grocery stores compelling us to reach for things we didn’t even know we wanted. In fact, certain sections of the supermarket are specifically designed for that very purpose. We tend to think of grocery stores as humble purveyors of food, but like any retail business, their main purpose is to make a profit off your money—and if you wander by any of these areas of the market, chances are, you’ll help them succeed. 


1. Picked-Over Displays
In 2001, researchers at a college in San Bernardino, California, compared sales from a fully stocked canned-food display with one that was missing cans. They found that 76 percent of the 645 cans purchased came from the picked-over display, regardless of where it was in the store. “When an area’s been disturbed, it cues consumers unconsciously that it’s a desirable product,” says Dr. Kit Yarrow, professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University and author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. “It’s a signal of popularity.” She also believes it’s indicative of the way consumers act in retail environments. “People don’t like to mess up things if they’re perfect,” she explains. “In bookstores, if you have a few things out of place, people are much more likely to pick up something.” 




2. End of the Aisles
Endcap displays are the assortments of goods found at the end of every grocery store aisle. “They’re seen by everyone,” says Dr. Yarrow. Endcaps are easy ways to put purchase ideas in people’s heads. “Once it’s in someone’s mind … it has more of a chance of being purchased,” she says. 


It’s often thought that whatever’s on display is put there because it’s on sale. While that’s sometimes true, endcap products are rarely the best bargain. Manufacturers pay a great deal of money to have their goods on such prominent display. Supermarket space has value, and, as in real estate, some areas have higher values than others. The end of an aisle draws immediate attention from consumers, making it the 90210 of supermarket space. 


Companies are willing to pay big bucks to put their goods there because a high selling rate’s almost a sure thing. A 1982 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that putting a product in an endcap display drew in between 77 percent and a whopping 243 percent more sales. And considering the goods on display are hardly ever the cheapest option—remember, manufacturers are looking for the most return on their investment—that means people are spending a lot more than necessary. Not only are they not always on sale (or not the best bargain, even on sale), but according to Consumer Reports’ senior editor, Tod Marks, on an April 2008 episode of The Early Show, they might be put out because they’re about to expire. 


3. Cash Register Displays
By the time people reach the checkout area, you’d think they’d be done with shopping. On the contrary, standing in line at the register is prime buying time. “They’re usually bored, which means they’re looking around for stimulation,” Dr. Yarrow explains. Grocery stores are more than happy to provide just that, in the form of magazines, candy bars, gum, and so forth. In a 2009 study, researchers analyzed over 3,200 stores and over 1,300 people to see how much spending goes on at checkout. They found that 15 percent of people will buy something from those displays; 80 percent of those purchases are magazines, soft drinks, and candy. These small items add up to 1 percent of total store sales, which is more than what some entire departments contribute. 




You might wonder how $1 candy bars and $2 sodas make so much money. Cash register displays fall into two categories: 1) small things you didn’t remember you needed, like toothbrushes or batteries, and 2) splurges that are small enough to justify, such as candy, gum, et cetera. Simply buying those things in the aisle could save a lot more money because what’s at the register is marked up severely. In 2009, Consumer Reports visited a store to test that theory. It showed that customers who purchased a twenty-ounce soda bottle at the register for $1.49 could’ve picked up a six-pack of smaller bottles that cost $0.66 for every 20 ounces. But grocery stores are banking on the fact that very few people will get out of line at that point to scout out better options. 


4. Shelves at Eye Level
Imagine walking down an aisle. Where does your eye naturally fall? Probably toward the right and on eye-level shelves, right? Well, you’re not alone. “We tend to look to the right more than we do to the left,” Dr. Yarrow says. It’s not until we come across a desired product that we turn our bodies fully toward it and look beyond the midlevel shelves. But if we’re in a hurry, we might just reach for what our eyes hit first, and that’s why eye-level shelf space is pricey. You’ll find the more expensive products there, whereas cheaper brands tend to live on lower shelves. 


Before reading up on supermarket layouts and talking with Dr. Yarrow, I’d never realized how sneakily stores can get extra money out of consumers. The tricks don’t end at these places, either. Most stores bake bread in-house to lure customers toward the bakery. They change product locations so people have to walk around more to find things, which leads to more impulse purchases. Even sales aren’t what they seem anymore, with promotions applying only to certain products within the brand, or the classic yellow stickers advertising a “low price,” but not necessarily a sale. Clearly, it pays to be more vigilant while grocery shopping, even if we’re in a hurry. It’ll cost a little time, but it just might save us a lot of money at the register.


Updated October 1, 2010

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