9 supermarket tricks you fall for

The smell of bread baking as you wander the aisles and the theatrically-lit displays of fruit and vegetables are old tricks. Supermarkets are adept at making us buy more than we need and there’s lots more in store (or rather online) with advances in technology.

But if we know the tricks – the ones we encounter every day as well as being aware that there are more to come – we can avoid them. So, what do we need to know?

Price manipulation

The recent so-called Marmite-Gate, where rising costs of Unilever products briefly meant they were out of stock in Tesco, and economic fears about Brexit have thrown the spotlight back on food prices. But the truth is that cut-throat price wars have run for so many years that it’s hard to know the ‘real’ cost of our food.

Many consumers know that multi-buy offers don’t always stack up (£3 for three bags of pasta, say, when each bag is £1) and that buying loose items (such as carrots and apples) can be cheaper than the plastic packaged goods. However, as with the “deals”, supermarkets make it hard to find the weight to price ratio and even use different forms of measurements to throw us off.

Hundreds of prices ‘slashed’

Another common trick is to slash prices of Known Value Items (KVI). The idea is that most people only keep track of the cost of a few essentials. Keep these low and it gives the impression that the whole shop is cheap. “Meanwhile,” says Paul Buckley, marketing psychologist at the Cardiff School of Management, “They’ll be increasing the cost of anything that we don’t know the exact price of.”

As supermarkets sell 40,000 products in an average store when they advertise price drops on 800, say, have a think about what might have happened to the price of the other 39,200 items…

Store layout

The first part of the shop – the ‘decompression zone’ – with its space and fresh produce is designed to make a link from the natural environment outside to the shiny, clinical interior. But while it may look cheerful, it’s impractical.  As Dr Jeff Bray, a senior lecturer in retail consumer behaviour at Bournemouth University, says: ‘You put your tomatoes in the trolley and then you squash them through the course of your shopping. It makes no sense. But what it does do is present an image of freshness, quality and healthiness.’

Shelf-stacking secrets

A study by consumer watchdog Which? tracked shoppers’ subconscious eye movements around the store and showed that our eyes tend to scan from left to right. Next time you’re in store, observe how supermarkets often put cheaper products on the left, increasing in small increments along the shelf. It makes the price hike between the cheapest and the most expensive seem less dramatic, says Which?.

End of aisle

You turn your trolley around the aisles and what catches your eye? That end of aisle display with its “special offer” on impulse purchases, like sugary treats. There’s lots of footfall in this area so we tend to buy more from these areas and suppliers often pay for the display space: a lucrative win-win for the supermarket.

Last aisles

By the time you’ve reached the last aisles, you will have made dozens of decisions and you’re likely exhausted. So, what’s there? Crisps and alcohol, because however good your intentions were, suddenly that wine’s looking good…


Most shoppers wouldn’t dream of paying £4 for a tin of soup, but stick the same stuff in a carton, give it a swanky label, and they can charge what they like. ‘The difference between the quality and price of the ingredients of the cheapest and most expensive products isn’t much,” says Buckley, “But customers are willing to trade up when there’s better packaging.”


As many as half of Brits are current online grocery shoppers and one in ten do all their grocery shopping online, according to latest figures from Mintel (a market intelligence agency). It can be easier to be disciplined than it is in-store but watch out for those pop ups of ‘special offers’. The ‘we think you’ll want’ sidebars and the ‘did you forget?’ items mean it’s easy to click on extras.


Grocery apps can already automatically put items into our virtual baskets (this is convenient as we never need run out of coffee, say, but it also means we’re less likely to shop around), personalise our offers and whip through the shopping list with voice activated technology. There’s plenty more coming our way. Already in Korea, for example, shoppers attach their phone to their trolley and the LED system on the ceiling transmits in-store discounts. There are also connected shopping trolleys that act as a ‘digital concierge’ to guide us around the store, pointing out promotions.

All of which distracts us from the only real advice that works for any of this: make a shopping list and try to stick to it.


Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian and The Observer. Her new book The Homemade Vegan is out now. In 2013, she lived without supermarkets for one year.