Grocery Store Secrets: Tricking the customer or just good business?

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Why is it when we walk into a grocery store we walk out with a lot more than we intended to buy?

We all do that at some time or another. In fact, 40% of our grocery store purchases are impulse buys. That number comes from a study done in Germany nearly three years ago but it seems to hold up here too.

"At least, at least, I think it could me more. I would guess it's more," says Dr. Merrie Brucks, a consumer researcher in the U of A marketing department.

Is it the consumers fault or is there something else going on here.

Something else is more likely the answer.

For instance, ever notice how most stores have fresh cut flowers right there when you enter the store.

It's not by accident. Of course you may impulsively buy the flowers but there's another reason too.

"When you come in and see fresh flowers, it makes you feel the whole store may be fresh, have fresh food," she says.

Right after the fresh flowers, comes the fresh fruit and produce.

Ever notice, the first thing to hit your senses are the colors, reds, oranges, greens all stacked up and so pretty.

Those colors are stimulating.

"They tend to get people's attention," says Brucks. "They're thinking about work or thinking about other things they have to do, this brings things out and says notice me."

From the music being played, softer music makes shopping a pleasurable experience which causes people to buy more, to the way shelves are stacked, with the pricier items at eye level, its well, stacked against the shopper.

Ever notice how the kids stuff is on or near the bottom shelf.

"Children's items are lower because that's where their eyes are," she says. "And usually the more sugared items are chosen by children so they would be lower."

Stores have things hanging all over the place in what are known as J-hooks. Ice cream scoops will be hanging with the ice cream. Sponges with the cleaning stuff. Little items you would not normally think of.

And to make sure you see them all, you're probably going to traverse the store one end to the other.

Even notice how the milk and butter are at the back of the store.

Since most of us go to the store to grab quick gallon of milk or butter, they just want to make sure we see all the bargains while we're there.

But is this really trickery or is it just good business sense. Stores need to make a profit and these little things help. It's likely up to the consumer to make sure they stay on budget and stay on message, so to speak.

"I always use a list," says shopper Don Matthews, who has a full cart. He's shopping on senior discount day as he does every week.

"I still buy some things on impulse," he says even though he carries a list. "Like these cranberries, with Thanksgiving coming up," he says.

Most people buy some extra things even if they shop with a list.

"I baked a cake so I decided I needed some wine," says shopper Brittany Orkney. "That wasn't on my list."

She says she has a limited budget so a list helps but she's still impulsive.

"40% is a bit high, maybe 20%," she says.

A list is a good idea but it only insures we buy what's written down and a list is never complete.

We go to the store and we see new things and we buy them. There should be no guilt, most of the time.

"There might be a new chicken recipe we want to try," says Brucks.

Sometimes a stroll through the store will jog the memory of other things we need.

The secret is to make sure when we buy on impulse it doesn't create guilt.

Pick up an item, determine whether you really need it or want it, think about it a second time. Then, if you buy it, there likely will be no guilt.

Never shop when you're tired. If you're a morning person, shop in the morning. If your energy level is higher in the evening, that's when you should shop.

"When shoppers are tired, that's when impulsive buying really kicks in," says Brucks.

Another trick grocers use is when they need to sell a lot of a particular item fast. Say it's $1.

Rather than sell them one at a time, the owner will sell 10 for $10.

And it works.

Embarrassingly enough, I fall for this," says Brucks. "I see 10 for $10 dollars, I have to buy 10. I can't buy eight."

Most of us do even though we may not need 10 or even have a place to store them.

But the big mistake a lot of people make is buying perishables the same way.

It creates a lot of waste.

Stores also set up the aisles right to left making it easier for customers to pull items off the shelves. Try going the opposite direction some time to see if you buy the same. It might be a good test.

Maybe shopping alone, without the spouse may be a good idea. It is for Matthews.

"WhenI shop by myself, I stick to the list," he says. "When my wife shops alone, she sticks to the list. When we're together, all kinds of impulsive buying takes place."

Stores also take advantage of the fact most people don't actually know the cost of things.

"It may be a special, but it doesn't mean it's on sale," says Brucks.

Most people don't know whether a head of lettuce is say, worth $2 or $3. But when the store says it's a special, most people believe they got a good deal.

And that's what the store wants you to feel when you leave.

"I saved $72.36," says Linda Byne, proudly displaying her store receipt. "But I spent."

That's one reason many stores will put your savings right on the receipt. It makes the customer feel they got a good deal.

There's also a reason not to spend too much time in the store.

"Your decision making muscle gets tired," says Brucks. "They've exercised some control in the beginning, but with all the decisions, they get tired."

That's why people get more impulsive during the second half of their shopping experience and also why most of the really impulsive things, like candy, are at the check out counter.

So when you check out, take stock of the grocery basket. Knowing you got what you needed, at prices that you can afford, will insure you paid the best price: guilt free.

Copyright 2011 KOLD. All rights reserved.