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Psychology of the Supermarket

November 18, 2014

When shopping at your local supermarket or retail store, do you ever stop to consider product placement? If not, it might be something worth noting next time you’re perusing the aisles.

As it turns out, there is a science behind the layout of the grocery store, and even the placement of each box, carton and container on the shelves.

And the goal of these precise models, known in the retail industry as ‘planograms’? To get you to spend more money.

It may seem a bit extreme to the average consumer, but there really is a tremendous amount of thought put into when, where and how products are packaged for sale and placed on shelves. I’m here to educate you about these tricks of the trade so that you can make more informed decisions and be a better shopper—and healthier too.

Eye Level is Buy Level

As the saying goes, “eye level is buy level.” That is—consumers are more likely to purchase a product placed at eye level than something placed low to the ground or high on the shelves.

For this reason, grocers purposely place products with higher profit margins at eye level.

Moreover, commonly purchased household items are placed in the center of the aisle in an effort to draw shoppers farther into the store. This isn’t unique to supermarkets, however. Think of your favorite retail store and consider where the sale racks are located. Are they up front where you can purchase things without browsing the rest of the store, or are they tucked into the back or center of the space?

You might think that spacing out complementary items is counterintuitive, but many markets use this technique so as to increase the amount of time a shopper will spend there. Working from the outside in, supermarkets often strategically place commonly purchased items like milk, bread or eggs at opposite ends of the store.

The Packaging Effect

Because certain food items are known for their unique brand, it is important for companies

to package and market their products effectively. Note the vibrant colors that characterize each aisle and how they can draw you in as a consumer. Did you know that these colors can have a psychological impact?

Warm colors like reds, oranges and yellows stimulate the appetite and give an exciting feeling, while blue and green give calming or soothing feelings that might suppress your appetite. Purple gives a sense of wealth or sophistication, while browns make a product look more natural.

Beyond color, the characters displayed on products (from logos to mascots) have been strategically placed and optimized to capture a particular buyer’s attention—even children.

In a 2014 study, the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab examined 65 cereals in 10 different grocery stores. Researchers found that cereals marketed to kids are placed at roughly half as high on market shelves as adult cereals. Additionally, the average angle of the gaze of box characters marketed to kids is downward at a 9.6 degrees, whereas characters on adult cereal boxes look nearly straight ahead.

So not only are consumers being targeted by their height, but also by visual cues, like cartoon eyes, that encourage you to embrace a product. In fact, the Cornell study revealed that “brand trust was 16% higher and the feeling of connection to the brand was 28% higher when the rabbit made eye contact.”

How To Outsmart Product Placement

As the busy holiday sales frenzy approaches, it is easy to get swept up in the buying spirit. However, there are ways to shop without falling prey to these marketing gimmicks. Here are a few tips:

  • Look high and low for store brands—these are usually the same quality at a lower price.
  • Stick to the perimeter of the store for the freshest and healthier items.
  • Don’t buy foods just because they are on sale.
  • Make a list and stick to it so as to not deviate while shopping.
  • Shop after a meal, because it is much easier to stick to the list when you’re not hungry.
  • Remember that larger-sized containers may not always be a better bargain.
Whether you are just swinging by the local market for a gallon of milk or holiday shopping for a large family meal, knowing exactly what you want before entering will make you a smarter, more focused shopper. Now that you know about the science of supermarket psychology, you’ll be better equipped to spot and avoid supermarket selling tricks.

For more tips on getting the most out of your shopping experience, watch my interview with FOX35 here.