It's Thursday, and I've been to the grocery store five times this week. This isn't normal for me. Usually, I take the time to plan and list what I need and get everything in one frugal, fell swoop.
Not this week. Nope — this week I battled with work, deadlines and 14 days' worth of laundry. They all won — I surrendered. In fact, after I write this, I'll be making yet another trip to pick up cat litter.
But coincidentally, I've come across quite a few articles on supermarket psychology this week — and the tactics stores use to get customers to spend more. I figure the frugal gods must be trying to tell me something. So I listened. Most of the info was the usual: pricier items are at eye-level, the bakery lures you with its delicious smells, etc. But there were a few bits of info I didn't know about.
Are we really that gullible?
Every time I read one of these store psychology articles, I ask myself, “Doesn't everyone already know this?” Don't we all know about impulse items and colorful advertising? Are we really that gullible? Apparently, we are. Most of us don't have time to analyze the subtle ways in which stores attract our attention. We just shop, and most of the time, we have no idea how we're being influenced. For example, I read about a study that found people automatically slow down when they see a shiny, reflective surface. No wonder they stack those polished apples so high in the produce section.
I definitely don't have time to study all of my inherent behavior patterns and relate them to my shopping habits — but companies do. So while it's no secret that the Almond Rocas near the registers are put there on purpose, there are much more furtive tactics.
In a segment on the Today show, a fashion mag editor pointed out that clothing stores have a habit of putting the fitting room right by the cash wrap. This makes it easier for shoppers to decide on buying whatever they just tried on. To me, this sounds ridiculous — if I don't want something, I'm certainly not going to buy it just because the registers are nearby. But I suppose they wouldn't utilize this tactic if it didn't work.
And apparently, studies have shown that American consumers tend to shop in a counter-clockwise direction. Stores use this pattern to decide where to place all of their colorful and shiny things. This was news to me, especially because I shop in a clockwise direction. But, again, it must work.
Appealing to our frugality
For the thrifty folks who are already wary of these tactics, the stores have a whole other set of manipulations. I hate to admit it, but I've fallen for them. The grocery store by my old apartment had “Cart Buster” Thursdays. You'd think the name alone would scare off any frugal-minded person. On Cart Buster Thursdays, the store usually sold 99-cent strawberries, which I was very excited about. My cart wasn't busting, but it was overflowing with way more strawberries than I could consume in a week.
Buy-one-get-one sales, coupons and bulk deals are all examples of how stores try to appeal to our frugality. We've discussed the pitfalls of couponing here before, and with bulk deals, it's not really a deal unless you're going to use all that extra stuff you're buying. Anyway, I wish I could say I was immune to these tactics, but I did learn my lesson. I now buy a reasonable amount of strawberries.
What's worked for me
Shopping when I'm hungry and broke
You know how you're never supposed to shop when you're hungry? Well, I never shop on payday, either, for the same reason. I shop when I'm broke. Like most people, I get paid bi-weekly, and I try to do my major grocery shopping on the week that I don't get paid. That way, I don't tell myself, “Hey, I can afford these overpriced air fresheners. I'm rich!” I should mention that I have a weakness for overpriced air fresheners. But it's a lot easier to resist them when I've paid my bills, paid into my savings and have a sobering amount left in my checking account.
The ugly clearance section
Does your grocery store have a clearance section? I had no idea that mine did until I needed to use their restroom one day and found it tucked away in the back of the store. Since this discovery, I've bought discounted canned goods, granola bars and other stuff that I actually use. The good thing about my store's clearance section is that it looks like crap, so there's really no impulse buying. Nothing is shiny or colorful or engaging. It's all dull and dented and dusty. So I definitely only buy something if I know it's a great deal and I'll use it.
I also discovered that they have discounted fruit tucked away in the produce section. It's not pretty either, but if you're going to eat it that night or the next day, it's a good deal.
Healthier, inexpensive choices
I've heard people say that eating healthy is more expensive, but I haven't found this to be true. (Most of my dinners are vegetarian, however.) During the week, Brian and I typically eat dinners that consist of tofu, mushrooms and whatever fresh vegetable happens to be on sale that week. Vegetables are always good for you, so if the artichokes are on sale, that's what we'll have. If asparagus is on sale, it'll be an asparagus week. You can't go wrong with vegetables. Our go-to foods — mushrooms and tofu — are always priced at $1.99, so I'll usually pick up a few packs of each. Dinner for the week usually runs us about $30. Sometimes we'll have free-range chicken, and if turkey is on sale, we'll stock up. But for the most part, eating healthy has been kind to our wallets. We now only shop on the perimeter of the grocery store, where there's much less temptation. We've stopped eating a lot of unhealthy, processed foods, so we don't even bother looking in the frozen food section, which used to tempt us with its ice cream selection. Don't get me wrong, I still eat and love ice cream. But I only buy it when I've decided to buy it, not because I'm buying a frozen lasagna and the Rocky Road is calling my name from across the aisle.
At any rate, lately I've been overwhelmed with work. It's easy to neglect spending less when you're focused on earning more. I prefer to do both, so this week, I definitely needed to be reminded of the subtle ways we're coerced into spending more money.
Are there any other store tactics you know of? What's worked for you in combating the subtle sales tricks of stores?
Kristin Wong is a freelance blogger who frequently writes about relationships for MSNâ€™s The Heart Beat blog. After paying off her student loan debt, Kristin decided it was time to pursue her dream and also put her English degree to use. She scrimped, saved and in 2010, left her hometown of Houston, Texas to pursue a writing career in Los Angeles. Since then, she has written for television, web, and occasionally, sketch comedy. When sheâ€™s not attached to her laptop, Kristin enjoys baking, amateur gardening, listening to 60s rock and exploring her city.