Saturday, May 14, 2011

Shopping for Less

Food shopping on a tight budget takes planning and discipline.  A generation or so ago there were small corner grocery stores scattered around every town and and every couple of blocks in the city.  Each store was set up in its own unique way and each store catered to the local clientele. That is not the case anymore except for ethnic stores here and there.  Most grocery stores are now part of large, multi-national chains.  They are able to purchase their products much cheaper than mom & pop stores because of the power of bulk purchasing.  Those lower costs are partially passed on to us, the consumer.  So you would think we would be saving money at these grande-marts.  Item per item we probably are, however these mega-food store chains also use psychology to manipulate our buying habits and we end up buy things we don't need.

One of the first tricks of the successful grocery store is to use "teaser" items to get you in the store.  They will sell heavily discounted items, often even at a loss, to entice you to their store.  The "sale" is often timed to bring customers in for holiday shopping or shopping on lower traffic days.  These teaser items will be spread out throughout the store so that you have to travel up and down the isles looking for them.  They know that you will likely pick up a few other items as you walk through the store. $$  Good for them but bad for you.

The next trick pisses off every parent and that is putting candy and cheapo trinkets right at the check-out line.  How many of you have pacified your out of control or whining kid by promising them some candy or one of these crappy toys while standing there waiting in line?  $$ Every one of you has done this.

Next comes store layout.  There is a high science to this.  Stores of all types have better planning than most industrial plants.  Over the past four decades the layouts of grocery stores have evolved from being a convenience to you to strategic tools of psychological manipulation. 
  • Have you ever noticed that the dairy section (everybody needs milk) is always in the far recesses of the store?  This makes you walk all the way through the store to get there even if all you needed was a half gallon of milk for tomorrow's breakfast.  Wouldn't it be a pleasing convenience for them to put bread and dairy items at the front of the store? 
  • Have you ever noticed that there are two places to select salad dressings in the store?  One is the standard stuff usually by the mustards, catsups, and BBQ sauces but they also display the really pricey dressings in the produce section.  This is to appeal to your "impulse" buying.  You see all those lovely greens, carrots, and other salad fixings and think, well, this must be the best salad dressings here, they are so fresh and good that they keep here in the cooler.  Sure, they are the best; the best profit margin items for the store anyway. 
  • Brand name items (the expensive stuff) are usually at eye level and the generic or store brand items are down at floor level.  The same thing for cereals.  All the sugary, non-food value kid's cereals are at their eye level and of course they see hundreds of commercials every week so they want what they have seen.
  • Store bakeries?  They make it look and smell like they bake fresh items there in the store but at best they just heat up trays of pre-made dough or bake pre-made pies and cakes.  The real deal is they need to produce the smell of baking items to tickle your taste buds.  If you are hungry you will buy more.
  • Why isn't the ice cream out near the check-out so it stays frozen longer?  Because they know you will buy that item near to last and that means you have to walk back into the frozen foods section to pick up your cold treat.
  • Aisle order. Many shoppers simply walk through the store aisles shopping for what they want. They walk down an aisle grabbing what they want then turn around and walk back the way they came. This is called the 'Boomerang Effect'. To maximise shopper and produce contact time, shops place major items and brands in the middle of aisles ensuring that no matter what direction the customer enters the aisle they will walk the furthest distance possible to reach that item.
  • Items that complement each other are often found close together to entice you to buy more. You'll often find pasta sauces on the same display as a featured brand of pasta.  Makes sense.
  • Why is almost everything $1.95 or 2$99?  This is called "Irrational Pricing". The reason they don't round it up from $4.99 to $5.00 is based on human memory processing time. Rounding upward requires additional thinking and memory. Because there is so much information available in a store, the price must be considered in a very short interval. The easiest pathway for your brain is to just recognize and store the first digits. Therefore customers think they are getting a better deal than they are.
It is a proven fact that the longer they can keep you in the store, the more stuff you will buy. Therefore shops work to make sure customers have to spend the maximum amount of time in their stores, placing obstacles and delays in the way of efficient shopping.

So what can you do to protect yourself from this manipulation,which costs you money and leads you to make poor food choices?  There are several things to try:

  1. Never go food shopping when hungry. Go in the morning after a good breakfast.
  2. Never take your children (ok, ok, it is unavoidable for many of you.).
  3. Plan your meals and then only buy what you need for those meals.
  4. ALWAYS have a shopping list (see number 3) and have the discipline to stick to it.
  5. Bend over and look for generic or store brands.
  6. Plan your trip through the store to minimize wandering the aisles
  7. Keep a price list/book so you know a deal when you see one.
  8. Use coupons but only to buy things on your list.
Happy Shopping!


  1. I may be a strange one but I love grocery shopping. I love looking at the fresh produce and planning meals around it. The meat and seafood counters look wonderful but are often out of my price range but it is nice that I can treat myself with a small quantity like just a dozen shrimp or 6 bay scallops. It is nothing, like the open farmer's markets I shopped at in Seattle but they will do for where I live now. (side note; shop farmers markets late in the day and you will get great prices on produce, I once paid $2.00 for a basket of cucumbers that I made 6 qts of pickles) I plan my meals around what I see. No one likes shopping with me because it takes some time. I know what is in my pantry and decide what we will be eating from what I see and what I have. Sometimes I will write it down in a notebook I carry if it is several meal plans. Discipline is a must. Before I leave the house I have checked the flier, my paper and downloaded coupons. I look for milk, vegetable and hygiene loss leaders. Often I will find better prices for hygiene products with coupons at drug stores, like Walgreen and Rite Aid. I plan my trips to conserve gas. Using my Disney credit card I put a set amount on the grocery card that I bought through the local orchestra (this gives the orchestra 4% of my sale)for every $100.00 I put on my credit card and pay off at the end of the month (all is payed off) I get $1.00 Disney money. I scan my Grocery key card and every $100.00 gets me a .10 cent discount on gas at their pumps (which are the cheapest in town usually by a penny) So by shopping loss leaders and planning my spending I save a lot each time I shop. I am currently involved in another forum that really uses coupons. One post had $829.00 worth of groceries for only a little over $8.00 She showed her receipts. These people are Extreme Couponers.

  2. Become a "Follower" on my blog. I think we have a lot we can both share about dealing with hard times or just choosing to be frugal and healthy. I've enjoyed your posts.