Dear people everywhere who eat food, are you about to head to the grocery store to pick up “one jar of pickles,” “a few tangerines,” “greens for the week,” “just toothpaste,” or, the very dangerous “a carton of milk”?
If so, you are probably vulnerable to a well-known phenomenon: buying more stuff at the store than you actually went for. Or, as I like to call it, “throwing away all of my money.”
I might also call it “going to get face moisturizer and spending $50 at Duane Reade” or “buying bruised potatoes because they’re on sale even though I rarely cook potatoes.”
Friends, those potatoes are not only bruised. They will rot. They will grow little alien sprouts and make you believe that you’re living in a toxic cave—a cave where food is wasted and you are a food waster!
We’re all guilty. Maybe it’s a box of the new Trix cereal, or eye makeup remover you had to grab because of the two-for-one special. Maybe it’s three family-sized bags of baby carrots that were just 77 cents each (a steal!). Who cares that your freezer is already full of 18 bags of frozen raspberries you had to buy at Sam’s Club, or that your gut will be full of terror once you try to eat that many carrots before they go bad?
But honestly: How many bags of carrots have to get slimy in your care before you’ll admit to yourself that you don’t actually like eating raw carrots?
Why do we do this to ourselves? Is it because we love wasting money? Do we hate ourselves?
No! Some of this has been subtly orchestrated, set into action by external forces that have a deep understanding of the human mind.
To learn about the supermarket tricks we’re all still falling for, I talked to current and former big box and chain employees who were willing to give us their insider tips.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The art of product displays really draws you in.
Wylie Whiteaker, who worked as a photo specialist and a store team leader at Walgreens for five years, remembers the merchandising for end caps.
End caps? I’m glad you ask. I, too, had never heard the term. Fortunately, Alan Ramsey of Palm Bay, Florida, has devoted an entire post to end caps (“END CAP 101”) on his retail blog.
An end cap is the shelving section at the end of an aisle. Ramsey writes that end caps in aggregate are “one of the single largest and easiest areas of the store that you can utilize to improve appearance and to drive sales.”
He goes on to discuss the aesthetics of his ideal display style (“Single item, single price. Nice blocked look and well signed”), organizing questions (“Where is the statement? What is the theme? What is the price point?”), do’s (“Creativity is a plus”), and don’ts (“What a waste of primo real estate! This is a cardinal sin in retailing, never have empty end caps.”) God, I love him.
Whiteaker explains that there were two options for organizing items displayed on end caps at Walgreens. Ribboning (also called striping, when products are arranged vertically) and waterfalling (“smaller items on top and heavier items on the bottom”). These could also be combined. He gave me an idea of what this would look like with different products:
A – B – C
A – B – C
A – B – C
A – B – C
A – B – C
These displays are designed to catch your eye. Ramsey says the striping presentation is particularly beneficial when “you have customers who are walking along and not scanning up and down.”
Waterfalling also has its time and place. “If smaller items are on the bottom … they can be hidden from view by the large items on the top and decrease your sales for that fixture,” he says. Thus small items go on top and larger items down below.
2. Stores prime you to shop according to your whims.
You might imagine that stores’ primary organizing factor would be efficiency, but nope. Jayme Palmgren works for a Midwest grocery chain doing administrative work and was formerly a shift manager. She’s familiar with the intentionality behind product placement—and it’s not about getting the customer in and out as quickly as possible with only what they came for.
“Items we wanted to get rid of went on end caps and by the register so people were more likely to spot them while they were waiting,” she recalls. Also important was item grouping: “Putting a soda display next to a salty snack we wanted to sell,” for example.
If you’ve ever felt like you’re on a wild goose chase for something inside a store or covering way more ground than you should be for only three items, it’s probably no accident.
“Stores are designed to steer customers around the perimeter,” says Jason Wilcox, formerly an assistant manager at Harps Food Stores. “Common must-get items are in different corners of the store.” He gives “produce and milk” as a prime example. (Remember what I said about milk?)
At Walgreens, Whiteaker says they were encouraged to make table displays “messy so people could see what was in them but had to dig through them to get what they wanted.” In the process of digging, they might “see other things they would want.
But just because a store isn’t doing the messy-on-purpose look for their displays doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to spring surprise desires on you.
Elizabeth Munguia-Shabangu, an operations assistant manager for Walmart, says the superstore has made changes to maximize their space—changes that both make for a more intuitive shopping experience and make you find more items you want to spend on.
“We move GM (general merchandise) items over to grocery to cross-merchandise and help customers make impulse buys,” she explains. “The Pinterest mom that wants to have her house set for fall or summer doesn’t have to walk all the way to homelines to get decor. We put that in grocery now on sidekicks near family box dinners. But we don’t put the whole set of towels, oven mitts and napkin rings, so now you HAVE to trek over there.”
3. You may be wasting money on old or overpriced produce.
What you’ve always heard is true: When it comes to finding the best produce, you have to go deeper. Alex Kammerer, a former grocery store employee who has also worked as a restaurant general manager, advises readers to “pull from the back or bottom” of produce displays, since supermarkets “always put the oldest produce on top or in the front.”
Likewise, he says to never buy pre-cut or processed produce. “It will always be marked up 100 percent or more above what the whole fruit or veggie” cost in its original form.
Then again, overpriced veggies are better than no veggies, and if you know you’re 100 percent more likely to eat your greens if they’ve been triple-washed and you don’t have to fuss with the salad spinner, then by all means, spend the extra money for the sake of your physical and mental well-being.
You can always be mindful of costs in other areas. For example, Kammerer says to “make sure you’re looking at the price per pound and not count, especially for things like avocados, artichokes, etc.”
4. You can’t judge a steak by its cover.
Kammerer also has a few words of advice about meat. Just as with produce, you should “always look at the price per pound to get the best deal, not the total price.”
“Go with cheaper cuts,” he says. “They might be more tough than nicer cuts but usually have better flavor.” To regain that tenderness, “just braise or slow cook.”
I met Kammerer by chance five years ago at a small bar in Madrid, where we realized we were both from central Arkansas. He said he was an aspiring chef-slash-restaurateur and later proved it by frying up some delicious calamari at his apartment, so I will personally vouch for his kitchen prowess.
While a long, slow cookin’ can do wonders for a meat’s flavor, it can’t do much for certain other qualities, like its freshness. “One thing the meat department does to trick people into thinking that they’re getting something they’re not is sell[ing] previously frozen products as if they’re 100 percent fresh, never been frozen,” says Jordan Ahne, a meat department clerk.
“We have so many products that we get in completely frozen. Things like shrimp, ribs, fish, and bratwurst are our big ones. We thaw these items in our cooler and are instructed not to put these items on display unless they’re thawed. For some reason people think these items are ‘fresher’ and ‘better’ than the frozen items, so they tend to buy them a lot more.”
The term for this is “slacking,” according to Blake Pearson, also a meat department clerk at the same chain grocer. “Slacking is a retail slang term for thawing out previously frozen products at the store level so that they can be displayed and sold with a fresher appearance,” he says. “This also helps with logistics and shelf life because the frozen product can be stored for months without the pressure of it going bad.”
But aside from slacking’s implicit dishonesty, is eating previously frozen meats all that bad? Not necessarily. This depends on the quality of the meat at the time of freezing, the freezing method, and the length of time that a meat remains frozen.
“If frozen at peak quality, thawed foods emerge tasting better than foods frozen near the end of their useful life,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA goes on to recommend you “freeze items you won’t use quickly sooner rather than later. Store all foods at 0° F or lower to retain vitamin content, color, flavor and texture.”
Some of the meat department’s other fakeouts might be more problematic—for example, unverified merchandising labels and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) practices. The former is just semantics. “Using words like ‘natural’ on packaging is the most widespread example I can give,” says Pearson.
“People assume that there is some kind of standard when using that term when there is not. Using the word ‘natural’ on packaging is not third-party verified like ‘USDA organic’ is. This is why you see such a steep increase in price in organic meats compared to the mild increase of ‘natural’ meats.”
The latter tendency—MAP—is “the most recent and most concerning to me personally,” says Pearson. He explains it like this:
“The old process of shipping fresh meats to the retail level was vacuum sealing. Now they are all cutting/grinding meat to its final stage, packaging it in trays with cellophane, then taking the extra step to put it in another plastic-sealed bag filled with an inert gas like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or exotic gases such as argon or helium, which is injected and frequently removed multiple times to eliminate oxygen from the package. Then they throw a giant oxygen absorber in the bag. Similar to what you see in a bag of beef jerky only much larger. So what looks like an in-house, freshly packaged product may have been processed weeks before.”
5. A “sale” isn’t always a sale.
You know those “discounts” that lead you to believe you must buy a particular product (or products) right now, immediately, today? They might be meaningless.
Palmgren says that a common practice at the store where she worked was “putting red sales signs on things that the price was the same or a few pennies difference.” The pennies-difference pricing—and steering clear of even-dollar amounts—is a tried-and-true trick.
A price of “$1.99 looks infinitely more appealing than $2.00,” Wilcox points out.
Also, you know those “deals” that make you load up on one kind of sunscreen or face cleanser? Make sure you read the fine print. “A two for $5 sign makes the customer think they have to buy two items to get the discount when usually they don’t,” Wilcox says.
6. Some stores are taking cues from casinos to draw you in.
More and more, supermarkets are looking to the psychology behind the design of places like casinos and restaurants to heighten the customer’s eagerness to spend and intensify their longing for just the right item.
Consider the so-called Walmart Experience, for example. You walk inside, and what do you see? The produce department, which is “fresh, bright, and inviting,” says Munguia-Shabangu. “They’ve taken those old big bulky produce tables away and brought in more low-profile tables to make it seem more farm-to-store, not processed.”
To maintain the farm-to-store illusion, they’ve changed their pricing stickers and “lumped Fresh Bakery and Deli along in the same area,” meaning you’re salivating over rotisserie chicken and bread that is literally just being made, when maybe all you came in for was a bag of apples or laundry detergent.
Walmart also remodeled to create stores that would be “brighter and more inviting,” says Munguia-Shabangu. “The new floor plans are open and not bogged down by high walls in apparel or in various other departments. Finding the area you’re looking for is easier now.”
They also changed color schemes.
“Gone are the oranges, yellows, and browns,” she says. “They were too dark and made the stores look dirty and dank.” Now, “walls are light blue” and accent colors might be dark blue, white, or black.
“Black and white are more streamlined and clean cut,” says Munguia-Shabangu. This more modern, sleek look is supposed to evoke “a vision of the future.”
“But probably the most important piece of the entrance is usually the TV that you see when you walk in,” Munguia-Shabangu tells me. “It’s the only indication you have of what time you started your trip in the stores.” Just like a casino, Walmart encourages you to step outside of the space–time continuum.
“There are no clocks on the walls or in the departments to remind you of your now-three-hour-long shopping trip.”