Healthy eating begins with healthy food shopping. Along with that, you want to shop without breaking the bank, spending all day in the store or ending up with foods you don’t need. To do that, it helps to have a little insight into how marketers design supermarkets to influence your buying decisions. And, more important, how you can resist their siren songs.
Why supermarkets seem illogical
Ever get frustrated by the way a supermarket is laid out? Congratulations. That’s exactly what supermarket designers want. It’s all meant to make you linger longer. If you’re confused and can’t find what you want, you’ll spend more time searching for it. And that’s more time for you to happen upon special offers that aren’t really all that special, for you to be tempted by impulse buying, and for your children to convince you to buy them what they want. Mission accomplished—theirs, not yours.
Let’s demystify it a bit. Milk is the product that many people purchase most frequently. Yet the dairy case is almost always in the corner of the store farthest from the entrance. Whether this is done for logistical reasons—refrigeration units are often located on the outer aisles and nearer to the loading docks, which are away from the front door—or as a marketing tactic is debatable. In any case, you’ll have to go the full length of the shop to grab a quart of milk if you simply came in on the spur of the moment. And it’s a rare shopper who can make that trek without buying something else.
Another “trick” may be poor signage. Have you ever looked up at the aisle signs and found them covered from view by sale signs? Or wondered why they list obscure items, instead of the ones most people are really trying to find? Sometimes cereal (a very popular purchase) is not listed on the signs over the cereal aisle. As with milk, since many shoppers will be looking for cereal in a typical shopping trip, if they have to search for it, they’ll have to walk down more aisles—and buy more—than they originally intended.
Be a focused shopper
Find a retailer you enjoy, then shop there exclusively. You won’t need to rely on signage if you are familiar with a store’s layout, and you won’t be as enticed by “specials” you know you will see again. Remember that a superstore might not be the greatest location for shopping. Price reductions might not occur, and even if they do, they might be countered by a rise in impulsive purchases. Aisle after aisle of merchandise that you wouldn’t often see in a grocery store may be found at superstores, including greeting cards, school supplies, and even beach chairs (higher margin merchandise). You will likely spend more money even though you will exercise more.
Making weekly meals will enable you to shop just once every week. Make a list—and stick to it. If you can, shop when stores are the least busy (weeknights between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. and weekends tend to be busiest, while Mondays and Tuesday less so). That way, you can get in and out with a minimum of wasted time—time spent standing in line staring at potential impulse purchases. Avoid Sundays if you can; besides being busy then, most stores receive no deliveries that day, so produce, bread and milk will not be the freshest.
How to navigate the supermarket
Many of the whole, unprocessed foods that should form the basis of your meals are found around the perimeter of the store. Plan to concentrate your shopping there.
When you enter a supermarket, you’re typically greeted by the produce section on one side. This is a great selling point, since fruits and vegetables look pretty and inviting. The produce section may be flanked by the bakery and deli departments. Savvy stores with in-house bakeries schedule their baking for the hours with the highest customer traffic, to tempt you with the smell of fresh breads and pastries. Some stores even make use of artificial “freshly baked” scents. The meat, poultry and fish counters usually line the back of the store, and the dairy case is typically in the far corner. Packaged breads may be along the far wall.
Don’t ignore the interior aisles, but be more discriminating about which ones you walk down. That’s where more processed foods and junk foods are found. Do browse the sections of the store that are filled with soups, beans, whole grains, and canned fish. And you will likely visit the pasta and cereal aisles on a regular basis. You’d do well to keep your blinders on, though, as you pass the frozen food cases—unless you are buying frozen fruits and vegetables and perhaps a few favorites like whole-grain toaster waffles for busy mornings, frozen veggie burgers or an occasional treat of low-fat or nonfat frozen yogurt or sorbet.
So here are your shopping orders:
- Visit a familiar store with a strategy and a list of things to buy.
- Resist any sales that are not for items you need.
- Don’t be distracted or misled by signs and come-ons.
- Concentrate on fresh, whole food options by going around the perimeter.
- Visit the inner aisles just to find the goods on your list, and make thoughtful decisions.
- Use the specific tips in our supermarket guide to help you make wiser decisions aisle by aisle.
9 Insider Supermarket Tips
Are you lured to the sale signs in supermarkets, only to be let down when you see the price? Do you always purchase name-brand products because you are confident in their greater quality? By implementing certain straightforward tactics, you can shop at the grocery more wisely.
- Don’t assume end-of-the-aisle displays (“end caps”) are sale items. Often they are not. Stores bank on shoppers not being able to resist what looks like a bargain when they see high stacks of packages.
- Be wary of “specials” or “sale” prices. They may only be pennies cheaper than the regular price. If you need the product anyway, fine. But it may be less of a bargain than you think.
- Don’t fall for “bulk” sale pricing (2 for $4, 10 for $9, etc.). Stores hope that shoppers will assume they must buy that number to get the sale price. But unless the fine print on the shelf tag says you “must buy 2” or “must buy 10,” you can buy any number you want and still get the “sale” price, prorated. Don’t be tempted to buy more unless you really need more.
- Look high and low. Supermarkets place the items they most want you to buy at eye level. And manufacturers pay “slotting fees” to get their items placed optimally, and for the most “facings” or front-of-shelf spaces. Often, you’ll find better bargains (and more healthful foods) on lower and higher shelves.
- Check unit prices. Though larger packages are often cheaper, they’re no bargain if you can’t use up the food before it spoils. Make sure the tag corresponds to the actual product you are looking at, since products may get shifted on shelves.
- Compare brands; prices vary widely. Generic and store brand items are often of the same quality as national brands but cheaper.
- If the “sell-by,” “use-by,” or other “expiration” date of the item in front is too close for comfort, reach behind, since supermarkets stock items with the closest dates up front. For example, a carton of milk in the front of the case might have a sell-by date that’s a week from the current date, but ones in the back might have dates that are two weeks ahead. The same goes for cottage cheese, yogurts and other perishables, but also for some non-perishables like cereal.
- Resist holiday-themed displays designed to tempt you to buy extras you may not have considered and don’t really need, such as fancy napkins and candles to go with your Thanksgiving meal. All the items you really need can still be found in their usual locations throughout the store.
- Buy organic only when it makes sense. Be aware that if there are separate sections for organic items, it will be difficult to compare the prices with those of conventional foods.