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17 Sneaky Supermarket Tricks to Get You To Spend More Money

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Learn the 17 supermarket sales tricks grocery stores use to get you to spend more money.

It’s happened to us all: we go to a store, or an online store, with a specific shopping list in mind of the things that we need, and we come out of the store with a boatload more.

young woman shopping for cheese at grocery store, text overlay "grocery store tricks costing you money"

Sometimes it’s only one more item, but it turns out that we didn’t even need to go to that store anyway.

So how did we end up getting in our car, driving several miles away, and spending money?

As it turns out,

a “sale” is not always a good deal.

There are people who sit behind desks all day, thinking of the next best way to make you spend your money.

It’s true — I used to work on this myself as a marketer!

Also as it turns out, when you pay people a decent amount of money to figure out how to get a consumer to buy more things, the results can be lethal…and effective.

I'd like to share these supermarket tricks and marketing strategies with you below.

Sneaky Supermarket Strategies to Get You to Spend More

young woman with shopping basket picking out which cheese to buy, and not fall for supermarket tricks

Trick #1: Bait and Reel You In

Grocery stores have been doing this for years — advertising an insanely great deal so that you will make an extra trip to their store.

Then, once you're there, you're much more likely to purchase more than just the severely discounted product.

Sneaky!

How to Combat: This is actually a great opportunity for you, as long as you have ultra financial discipline in order to go to a store, purchase the special only, and leave. I have the financial warrior in me…do you? Several grocery stores are now putting in fine print “with $10 purchase” in order to get these great deals. For us financial warriors, it is good to know that most stores include the purchase of the special item as part of the $10 that you spend. So, perhaps instead of purchasing just one of the special items, purchase enough to get to that $10 threshold, and now you’ve made yourself a cheap stockpile!

Trick #2: Switchamaroo

If you haven’t noticed yet, when the last recession hit, many products decreased their size without decreasing their price.

Essentially, you're now paying more money per ounce, per pack, or per any weight than you were before on some of the following products (thanks to MousePrint.org):

  • Lucerne yogurt went from 8 oz. to 6 oz.
  • Haagen Dazs ice cream went from 16 ounces to 14 ounces
  • Bounty paper towels went from 138 sheets per roll to 128 sheets
  • Purina dog food went from 20 pounds to 18 pounds
  • Kleenex tissues went from 8.4 inches to 8.2 inches

Ice-Cream is also sold now at the half gallon price…but for a 1.5 quart container, and the way they make you think that it is still a half gallon is by tapering the base of the packaging, but keeping the top of the packaging the same size.

Sneaky!

How to Combat: Instead of purchasing the smaller container and smaller sized products, purchase in bulk. You can always read the required tags below the product that tell you how much you are paying per ounce/weight/size, etc. Using this tag, you will see that you are getting a better deal by purchasing the larger product (and saving packaging waste). Be careful, though. If you do not need the larger product, and will not use it up before it expires, than this is just not a good deal for you. Perhaps you are on a diet, and the smaller portion size is better for you anyway? Try to look on the bright side of everything.

Supermarket Sales Tricks

woman putting in box to filled shopping cart with bananas, produce, and more

Trick #3: Buy 10 Items for $10

If a store can sell ten items instead of just one, then why not?

This deal makes most people think that they need to purchase ten items in order to get the $1.00 a piece.

But that is simply not true. You can also just purchase 1 or 2 (unless the fine print says otherwise).

In fact, you can purchase as many as you’d like; the 10/10 has no real bearing on reality, except to tell you that the product is on sale for $1.00 (this does not ring true for every x/$x sale; if it specifically says in fine print that you must purchase x number of products in order to get the sales price, then listen to the fine print).

Another sneaky move here is that typically you will see one or two items on “sale” for $1.00…that during normally cost $1.00 anyway, or even less than $1.00!

This helps stores to recoup some of the costs of the sales promotion. Some examples of this are a recent 10/$10 sale at Kroger’s that had such items as gum, single containers of yogurt, and cans of tuna.

Sneaky!

How to Combat: The best way to take advantage of these types of sales is to purchase only the amount that you want, and to purchase the most high-end products available for $1.00. Just as there are low-end products in these types of promotions, there will also always be more expensive products so that the store can lure you in. If you enjoy using coupons, even if they hike up the price to $1.00 on some of the smaller items, chances are you can then get these items for free with $0.35 coupons (if they double and triple coupons like Kroger and Randall’s do here in Houston).

Trick #4: Dollar Store Sales

One would think that products at the Dollar Store are the cheapest around, right?

Well, it’s just not always true. Oftentimes, shopping at dollars stores will get you cheaper products.

But Dollar Stores need to make money as well, and so they will also charge more on products that you can go to a grocery store, or discount store, or any store and find for cheaper.

Some of these products include the $1 can of tuna fish, or $6 50-count Advil, or $3.50 dial hair/body wash. Sneaky!

How to Combat: Be picky with what you purchase at Dollar Stores. Dollar Stores have some great assets, but when it comes to name brand, newer products, do not assume you are getting a good deal. Name brand, older products you can get good deals on, such as $0.75 2 liter cokes or Clorox bleach. Some other safe bets are some sturdy household items, such as glasses/wine glasses, aluminum drip pans for your oven, flip flops (college/gym shower shoes), and gardening tools. Kids and baby clothes are a safe bet because even though they may not be of the highest value, your child will most likely grow out of them before they deteriorate. If you are a couponer, you know that you most likely get cheaper, name brand products using coupons during sales at name brand stores than searching the aisles of dollar stores.

Trick #5: Buy One Get One Free and 1 Cent Sales

Buy one get one free sales have been around for years, but a new type of sale which is the same premise is the one cent sale (a favorite of JCPenny’s).

Basically, if you purchase one item, you can get a second of that same item for one penny (customers are actually paying more for the same sale idea — one penny more!).

The trick that most retailers play is they up the price from the normal shelf price on the product to recoup some of their cost on the “free” product to you.

For example, Walgreens (who is notorious for doing this), has a 1.5 quart of Breyer’s ice cream on sale, buy one get one free. The cost of the one you purchase is $6.29.

Essentially you are getting 3 quarts, or ¾ of a gallon of ice-cream for $6.29. This may still be a decent deal for you, but if you purchase ice-cream on sale at the grocery store, then you will pay about $6.00 for a gallon (for the premium ice-cream, and less for other brands).

Sneaky!

How to Combat: If you are a couponer, then most times you can beat the retailers at their own game. It turns out that you can use two coupons for the buy one get one free sale; one coupon per product, which should bring the cost down to lower than normal. Also, pay attention to the pricing at JCPenny’s buy one get one for one cent sales, and at other companies that do the same. If it seems like a good deal, then go for it; but if you aren’t sure, then do a little price comparison online before making the trip.

Trick #6: Pricing Products so that You Overspend for the Sake of a Promotion

Let’s say there is a promotion, where if you purchase $20 worth of products, you get $10 in catalinas/register rewards/ExtraCare Bucks/or other store credit.

Seems like an incredible deal, right?

It is…except when the retailer marks the promotional items at odd prices so that you are forced to purchase an extra one in order to get over that $20 threshold.

woman with handkerchief on, and yellow gloves, text overlay "17 supermarket tricks of the trade (cut your grocery bill)

For example, at Walgreens (again, notorious for doing this) this week if you purchase $20 worth of Zyrtec products, you get a register reward (store credit good on your next purchase) of $10.

The only problem is that the product is priced at $18.99 for 25 or 30 count of Zyrtec. In other words, you are forced to purchase two of these products, totaling $37.98 in order to get that $10 store credit. For an old Swiffer rebate deal, where you purchase $20 worth of Swiffer refills and get $10 as a rebate, I was faced with this same issue, but on a smaller scale.

The refills were all priced at $4.86 or so, meaning I would have to purchase 5 of them to meet the $20 threshold, instead of only 4 (which would only get me to $19.44). Sneaky!

How to Combat: Lots of store promotions that are run side by side with manufacturer rebates and such work out beautifully. But some are concocted in order to squeeze your wallets. Many promotions from manufacturers (where rebates are involved) do not force you to hand in just one receipt. In other words, you can purchase products here or there as they go on sale at various stores instead of purchasing at lackluster store promotions. This may be a better deal for you. Also, for couponers, you can typically get enough coupons in order to make up for the odd pricing. For example, Zyrtec typically issues $5+ coupons in the Sunday circulars, so you could use two $5 coupons, and end up paying $27.98 for two Zyrtecs, plus getting a $10 store credit back on the above promotion example. This brings your purchase price down to $13.99 (check with normal pricing on Zyrtec to make sure this is a good price; if it’s not, then stay away from this promotion all together).

Supermarket Psychology Tricks

I caught a very interesting documentary on CNBC the other day called “Supermarkets Inc.: Inside a $500 Billion Money Machine”.

It featured industry experts who offered an insight on some of the tactics retailers are using to get us to come home from the grocery store with more products than we had intended, and having spent more money than we had budgeted.

I have to tell you — I was shocked with what I learned.

We’re not talking about the normal strategies that you learn in Home Economics class such as making a shopping list and sticking to it no matter how many impulse items are staged at the cash register, or how to check sizes and unit costs for tricky packaging.

We’re talking about a whole new breed of tactics that the average consumer has yet to evolve against.

In fact, I have noticed that our own household’s grocery budget has expanded at the waist a bit; I know that this is partly due to food price inflation, but perhaps we are being duped into purchasing more as well?

The Tactics and Technology at Work Against Us – Grocery Store Layout Strategy and More

  • Bigger Shopping Carts: An experiment discussed on the segment showed that doubling the size of a shopping cart means you will purchase 40% more.
  • Creating a Mirage: By marking down three staple items to lower-than-normal prices (toilet paper, eggs, and milk), then consumers will think that the entire supermarket is cheaper “and you can increase the price 10% on everything else” in the store.
  • Meandering Walkways and Displays: Instead of straight up-and-down aisles, stores have created specific layouts that allow one to meander around, almost as if they were following an enchanted path in a forest. This will lead you through as much of the store as possible, even to aisles and sections you were not headed towards.
  • Half-Aisles for the Non-Committal: Long, rectangular aisles are out. If consumers see that they have an escape route midway down the aisle, then you are more likely to go down an aisle.
  • Sensory Environment: As consumers we’ve categorized stores into the ones we go to only occasionally when we have a little extra money and want to enjoy the experience, versus the ones that we run in and out of each week with the lowest prices. At the extremes are warehouse-type Wal-Marts versus Whole Foods/Central Markets. Retailers have figured this out as well, and have come up with ways to keep us lingering in the stores as long as possible — after all, the longer we are in their store, the more opportunities they have to sell us things. Stores have developed a very sensory experience of sights, sounds, textures, and tastes for us. They give enough samples that you can almost call it lunch, play soothing music, have installed lighting to highlight the major stars (green peppers and cucumbers), have social areas (tables around coffee bars), etc.

So what do these same experts suggest we do to not spend more than intended (i.e. not fall for their tactics)?

They suggest we:

  • Leave the children at home, as they will always make you spend more (I also find that when Paul and I go shopping together we spend more than if either of us just shops alone).
  • Only carry around baskets, not roll around the huge carts.
  • Avoid meandering by staying in the outside aisle.
  • Know that milk, eggs, and other staples are almost surely going to be located in the back of the store and you should figure out the fastest, closest way to get to them if that is all that we need.
  • Not just look at products at eye-level (which are often the most expensive items), but instead look above and below them for better deals.

Here are several more Retailers Tricks Played On Us

I am all about transparency in consumerism. I want to know what you are charging me, broken down by item, and why. As long as a retailer can show me this via price tags and advertisements, and it is justified in my mind (including the fact that retailers need to make a profit), then I am quite understanding.

But what about fees that retailers sneak into prices and negotiations without you being aware of them? Below is a list of five that drive me crazy.

  1. Gas Stations that Advertise a Special Member Card Rate: Gas stations advertise their best price on the top slot of their billboards. But some gas stations have member cards, and only the members can get this lower price on gas. The asterisk showing that it is a special member’s only pricing is usually in lettering is so small that you cannot tell that it is a card member-only price until you have all ready driven to the gas station and are ready to pump. This has happened to me twice, so at this point, I assume that any small lettering under the prices means that it is member-card only and I move onto the next gas station.
  2. Just Pay Extra Shipping and Handling for a “Free” Product: I don’t order things from commercials very often, but I did twice in the last two years and both times the retailer sent me another “free” item that I “just had to pay shipping and handling on”. I did not have a choice in this item; they shipped it to me without me wanting it, and when I called to say that I did not want it, they basically said “too bad”. The extra shipping and handling both times was around $7! If I had returned the item, I would have had to pay shipping again, which means that I kept the items…against my will.
  3. Inflated Replacement Costs: Some products retailers give away for free through rebates, coupons and such. These can include razors, water filter systems, and even printers. Seems like a great deal, right? Except that retailers then charge an arm and a leg for the replacement razor blades, water filters, and ink cartridges, thus making back the money they lost on giving products away for free and then some. Fortunately there is the internet and you can typically find off-brand replacements for almost every brand item out there.
  4. Complimentary” Companion Airfare Ticket: Some electricity companies, services, and/or credit card companies entice consumers with free companion airfare for signing up. This is a great deal if you have a child, husband/wife, or other person that you love to travel with…except that the extreme restrictions and bloated pricing on the one ticket that you must purchase often makes this a total wash (or worse) for you. Recently my friend Helen received a free companion airfare as part of her electricity company’s package for signing up for 12 months. The catch? She had to purchase the one ticket through this third party company, and the ticket cost twice as much as a ticket she could have purchased off of Expedia, Hotwire, or other internet airline site. On top of that, the restrictions for when she could fly were outrageous.
  5. The Penny Product: I know of one store in particular that does this (JCPenny). The offer is that if you buy one product, you can purchase a second for $0.01. This can be a good deal, but expect that part of the price of the second product is built into the price of the first product.
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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.
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