How to outsmart supermarkets’ manipulations that influence your shopping choices

70% of all shopping decisions you make are not rational but emotional choices, coming from a gut feeling. Scientific studies have also shown how specific triggers affect you in grocery stores and what customary behaviour patterns you exhibit while shopping. Marketing experts and supermarket strategists obviously take advantage of that as their goal is to increase your spending. This article is about such strategies in order for you to not fall into those traps again next time you do your groceries – and how to shop smarter instead!

The supermarket safari

The path to the foods used most often after fruit and vegetables (e.g. bread, pasta, deli department, dairy, eggs) is a long one. It leads you past many other shelves, special offers and departments with the ulterior motive to expose you to as many products as possible. Ideally, you get to see the whole assortment of goods – because only if you see it, you might also buy it. If you follow my recommendations and eat mostly vegetables, you can skip many aisles and pilot directly to specific shelves.

Cash hurts, plastic doesn’t

Science has proven what we have all known for a long time: If you pay with credit card, you generally spend more money. The reason is the following: Every single time you have to give something away, the “pain center” in your brain reacts. There is not just one single spot for pain allocated in your brain. Pain is the result of a complex, neuro-physiological interaction of your central nervous system. It is an experience of sensations and feelings. It is a fact that you feel pain when you pay in cash, as you are giving away real, visible money. Before the transaction, you had a 10$ bill. Now you only have a 5c coin in your hand. When pay with credit card, you get the same card back after paying for your goods. You have a much stronger connection to bills and coin than to plastic, and the card does not shrink once you have spent some money with it.

Tendency for the middle

Imagine the following situation: You are standing in front of a shelf for laundry detergents. The one is the middle is an expensive label. The one on the left is a cheap no-name and the one on the right is an extremely expensive luxury brand product. Which one will you choose? I bet you will grab the one in the middle, the expensive label product! You are not the only one there, it is a trend. You tend to reach for the product in the middle. The cause is this: You compare the detergent in the middle with the ones on either side. Since one is very cheap and one is very expensive, your choice is right in between. But it isn’t rational!

Pester power items at the check out

„Pester power items“ are what experts call the products at the cash register. What happens at the checkout when your kids are with you? “Daddyyyy… can I have a chewing gum? Please, pleeeease??” What’s the solution? Either you distract your kids well enough or you make it a general rule that anything at the checkout is out of bounds. Or you look for a candy-free cash register, there are some in most supermarkets.

Men buy differently, and so do women

Men are less sensitive to price than women. This means that men go on their “hunt” and reach directly for the desired product. If you are a man, you do not care for every cent. Then you quickly exit the store (after paying, obviously). Women are different. They take their time, they think and consider, they calculate this, they compare that – and finally end up getting significantly more products than their decisive male counterparts. This behavior is comparable to Neanderthals. In modern supermarkets, men still act with the brain of a hunter and women with the one of a gatherer.

Tip: Leave your hunger at home

As mentioned before, doing groceries on an empty stomach is a big no-no! The reason is simple: Your gnarling stomach wants instant gratification, and that is usually not possible with whatever is on your shopping list. Stupidly enough, any instant meals or “fast foods” are often higher in fat and lower in nutrients. You also tend to buy more if you go shopping on an empty stomach. This is because you are prioritizing a basic need and do not pay attention to any other stimuli. Only once you are satiated, your mind will be once again clear enough to make healthy grocery decisions.

Artificial mess and scarcity as a standard trick

If you pay close attention, you will see this trick all over the place. Most of the time, palettes are not completely full. This suggests to your subconscious that other people have bought that product already and that it is worthy for you too. Some packages have slipped and put back into place in a messy way. The combination of these impressions creates the feeling: ”Must be a bargain if so much is gone already.” And what is the result? Exactly! You already have the product in your shopping trolley as well.

Sometimes size actually does matter

Do you think the trolleys in your supermarket are just that big so you can fit everything into it? Oh no! The trolley is that big so it seems empty as long as there are only a few products in there. This creates a subconscious conflict within you. To solve the conflict, you quickly fill your trolley with goods. Aaah, much better. The big trolley triggers you to buy more than what’s on your shopping list. What’s the solution? If I only need five items, I use a shopping basket instead of the trolley.

Image: wikipedia.org

66.2°F, please!

Supermarkets and shopping centers create a comfortable and homelike shopping climate. Researchers discovered that we spend most at a temperature of 19 °C (66.2 °F). If it is warmer, we become lazy and indecisive. If it is colder, we just want to get out of there. The typical shopping center temperature varies in between countries and cultures. Stores in the United States keep their thermostats usually lower than in Germany for example.

What’s that sound?

If you listen to classical music during shopping, you will experience the products as better quality and will even enjoy choosing the more expensive product. Pop music exhilarates the shopper – of course, you should feel comfortable in the store so you stay longer. If you are in a good mood and positive, you are more spontaneous in decision making and will buy more. You have probably noticed this yourself already: When you are in a good mood, you see “essential” things everywhere – but do you really need them? Are they really essential? On the other, when in a bad mood, you won’t find anything to your liking, without fail. Whether you find something is therefore not necessarily a matter of what’s on offer but of how you are feeling in that moment. Stores try to improve your mood. So if you are in a bad mood, go shopping! It’s that easy.

Subliminal marketing

Are you aware of subconscious influences? The correct term for it is “subliminal marketing”. Many international studies have been made on this subject, e.g. on music in supermarkets: Several wines of similar quality were on offer, one of which was a German wine. Interestingly enough, significantly more people bought the German wine when polka music was playing in the background, influencing them subliminally. We associate cleanliness with a product in a yellow container, rather than in a neutral one. Associative networks in your brain are being activated and the clou is that you don’t even realize it. This is manipulation!

Left before right

Have you ever noticed that you always enter stores from the right and then walk through the store anti-clockwise (if viewed from above)? Even the direction of all the aisles is of importance. Psychologists say that you prefer walking anti-clockwise, that you experience it to be more pleasant. And if you feel good, you buy more. The path to the cash register and exit is therefore always anti- clockwise. Pay attention to that next time!

What’s where in the shelf?

This one is a classic and can be found anywhere: Inexpensive products are always stored in the bend- and stretch zone. Those goods are harder for you to reach than the products at eye level. The most expensive labels are always the ones that are the easiest to reach. The positioning of shelves also takes into consideration that the human field of vision is oriented to the right. This means that you tend to rather look to the right than to the left when standing in front of a shelf. And this is also where you’ll find the products that are supposed to be sold most.

Tip: Plan your shopping

This tip is easily explained: Write a shopping list. This is not just something for forgetful folks. It will help you to buy only what you really need. What about a reusable list? Simply type up everything you buy regularly, add the current prices, and print the list. Like that, you only need to tick the items you need and write down the amounts required. Another option would be to use your smart phone as a mnemonic device.

Fast customers need to be slowed down

If you race through the store, you buy less – it’s that simple. That’s the reason for the fruit and veggie section being at the store entrance. They slow down your pace you brought in from the street. Slow music and narrow aisles make you move slower automatically. So-called Stop!-shelves and purposely placed obstacles, such as stand-up displays or small taste counters decelerate your speed.

Be careful with specials

The family pack of chocolate, usually far away from all the other chocolates, is dubious. AND it’s on special. Mhhh, if you help yourself here, you fall into the specials trap. The same product can usually be found in a different size for a lower price in a shelf somewhere behind you. For that you would have to walk back though, or simply drop and cold-shoulder the chocolate.

Saving with family sizes

In general, family packs are cheaper per pound / ounce than single portioned packages. Sometimes price tags display the “per lb / oz” price. This is handy. Or you just quickly calculate in your head or on your pocket calculator/smart phone. But be aware: This does NOT mean that you should be buying the 2 lb bag of chips every time from now one, because that huge bag will be at home with you – and you will eat it. So sometimes, the smaller bag is actually worthier.

Shopping training for kids

”Oh how cute, look! A trolley for kids.” Is that kids friendly? Nope. Mini-trolleys are there to animate the little ones to happily grab things already. Very coincidentally, the lower shelves also stock the best kids’ products. This makes it hard for parents to say “no”. Like that, families often buy way more than necessary and the young ones get trained to shop early on.

Find specials beforehand

If you are a bargain hunter, check the stores’ flyers before you actually enter the shops. This helps to inform yourself in a relaxed manner about what’s on special, and decide beforehand what you really need. Like that, you are less prone to fall for alleged specials and bargains.

Seasonal is optimal

Shopping seasonal produce is ideal. Adapt your menu to each season. If you insist on eating asparagus in winter, you will pay for it. Why not have delicious lamb’s lettuce or some cabbage dish instead?

Tip: Snatch offers just before closing time!

If you do your groceries just before shops close, you can save real bucks: Bakeries and vegetable shops often lower their prices in the evening as they want to get rid of their perishable goods.

The expiry date compresses the price

If a product has only a few days until its expiry date, it is often offered for a lower price. You should only choose offers that you would use soon though. Yesterday’s bread is also often available for 50%.

What’s that smell?

It is a fact: You rather buy something that smells nice. Supermarkets therefore make sure that the bakery section has a scent of fresh breads wavering through, while the fish counter has a fragrant smell of lemons. Vanilla is supposedly best for clothes shopping. It stimulates you and sets off endorphins. In-store ovens are quite popular as well these days. Their exhaust air is purposely blown into the store: It smells good and increases your appetite for breakfast, especially in the morning. Jam, nutella and honey are – totally coincidentally – right within reach. A study on this topic showed that scents can increase sales by up to 6%. Once again, subliminal marketing at its best.

What do you see?

If you pay attention, you can experience this effect especially in the vegetable section. Warm light lets fruit and veggies look fresh, crunchy and inviting. Mirrors insinuate a vast selection and variety. Reddish light makes even lean meat look nice and rosy. For a comparison, do your groceries at the farmers market where there are no red lights and mirrors, only facts and reality.

Image: www.wikipedia.org

Image: www.wikipedia.org

The order of products makes sense

Products in stores are generally placed in a particular order: must-have, nice-to-have, treat. First off are the must-haves, the basics such as vegetables, fruit, pasta, bread and rice. Then there are the nice-to-haves such as dairy, meat and deli goods. And finally it’s time for the treats: frozen foods, instant products and sweets. Once you have made it there, you are already a little fatigued and rather inclined to buy “something quick”. To top it off, you will get to see the snacks and candies. You deserve a treat after this exhausting activity, don’t you? It has been shown: If the goods are placed in the opposite order, they are more leftovers. The reason is simple: You first look for basics. If sweets were at the store entrance, you would not even look twice.

Tip: Check your receipt

You do not check your receipt? You better start now. Many errors happen here. Statistically, seven out of 100 receipts have errors. Maybe also yours?

Sophisticated shelves

You too have certainly noticed those sophisticated shelves in stores already: If you remove a product, the one behind slides right into that gap. If you decide you actually don’t want it, you do not really have a chance to put the product back.

Tip: Shop with all your senses

Do you feel properly armed to withstand the strategists’ nifty and goal oriented attempts of manipulation? Many of these unfortunately elude themselves of your conscious awareness. They speak directly to your subconscious, a fine example of subliminal marketing. Make yourself aware that your subconscious rules your shopping behavior significantly. Why do I tell you that? Here are my handy tips:



o Read this article once again and deliberately pay attention to those small, hidden traps next time you shop. Consciously discover – do not fall for them.

o Read this once again after your shopping trip. Figure out which traps you noticed and which you fell for again. Keep practicing!

o And if you fell into a trap, do not beat yourself up about it, but learn for next time.

If you enjoyed reading, click here for the full ebook.


All the best, Pascal


With a PhD in psychology of sports and several years of work experience in both a youth care facility and a clinic for behavioural medicine, Pascal Kühner walks his talk and exemplifies through his own life what he wants to communicate to others – a balanced diet, enjoyment of life and regular physical activity are cornerstones of his daily life.
Pascal’s main focus is the integration of nutrition and sports both related to psychology and put them into everyday life: he wants people to take responsibility of their own health and start changing.
Quick first successes motivate additionally to stay on track on your journey to health – Pascal picks people up from where they are at and gets them to where they want to be.



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