The science of supermarket psychology

Ever wondered about some of the psychology involved in retail, particularly in supermarkets? Here are some of the different manipulations and techniques used by supermarket retailers.


Watch Food Investigators on SBS from 20 May 2009 to see more about supermarket psychology.

Most of our supermarket buying is habitual. We don’t tend to put a lot of cognitive effort into the purchase of most of our brands. We mostly choose from the same brands week after week, so to convert people (or get them to change brands), supermarkets like to create dissonance in our mind. They do this by using cues such as specials, price changes, and the use of colour: red, for example, is the most noticeable colour in the spectrum (click here to find out why), yellow and gold have been shown to bring on salivation and hunger (perhaps because of its links to the colour of fried food), while blue is said to promote trust (read some more about this).

Supermarket Psychology Discussion with ABC Radio Canberra

Placement of entry has a significant effect on how people shop, and how much they spend.

  • Right-hand side entries favour counter-clockwise movement through the shop, while left-hand side entries favour clockwise patterns.
  • Counter-clockwise shoppers spend, on average, $2 more per trip, than do clockwise shoppers.
  • The average shopping trip covers about 25% of the supermarket.
  • People who use the fresh food (e.g., meat, fruit and vegetables) area tend to spend more, so supermarkets place the produce area at the beginning (or the end) of the supermarket experience. They also make the produce area a relaxed, inviting, and fresh/clean environment to create a sense of trust, and emotional involvement in the shopping experience.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t weave up and down aisles. Research of movement patterns using GPS trackers attached to trolleys show that people tend to travel in select aisles, and rarely in a systematic up and down pattern.

  • Even long shopping trips are punctuated by short excursions into and out of the aisle, rather than traversing the entire length of the aisle.
  • What this means is that key products (the ones with the greatest profit margins, or those that have paid a premium), will be placed at the ends of aisles in endcap displays.
  • Also, familiar brands are placed at the end of aisles to serve as a psychological “welcome mat” to those aisles, which results in increased traffic.
  • Products at the centre of the aisle will receive less “face time”

People also tend to use the perimeter of the shop as the main thoroughfare, rather than heading down aisles.

  • People use the perimeter as a home base, so key items are placed on the perimeter of the supermarket.
  • Shorter trips tend to stick predominantly to the perimeter.

Some products are categorised, and shelved, according to their value to the shop.

  • Leading brands, and, more recently, store-labels, are put in high traffic locations, and are given priority for secondary placement.
  • Niche categories, are placed in visible, but low traffic areas – because the target market is willing to hunt for them.

Supermarkets don’t block your way, but they do “push” the products that you may be interested in, into your path.

Many items are opportunistic purchases, or impulse, however, they tend to, again, be in the main pathways around the supermarket – although there are some caveats to this, particularly in relation to the placement of staples such as milk and bread.

Retailers ask whether the rate of conversion is justifying the amount of exposure of products, i.e., if a product is put in a premium zone, are people buying it? Not just sales, but also in relation to the amount of traffic that it is receiving.

Confusion and Emotional Involvement will have an effect on how long a person spends in front of a particular area. For example, in Melbourne, Australia (where good coffee is important), you might find consumers spending a long time in front of the coffee selection area. Similarly, baby food purchasing tends to take longer because of emotional involvement. In terms of confusion, soups and dressings are often long “buy-times”, but usually because of confusion. What this means is that long “buy-time” products are put in places where shoppers will not feel hurried or crowded. It also means that shoppers are not getting in the way of other customers, as they spend long periods working out what they are going to buy.

The people who do venture into the centre of aisles, and the shop, tend to also spend more time in the shop, but not necessarily more money, relative to the amount of time in the shop.

Some supermarkets now micro-manage sections of the shop. Instead of approaching the shop as one big entity, they have begun to separate areas into particular zones, e.g., health goods, bakeries, confectionary, and developed different marketing plans for each of these areas.

They also use anchor departments, such as Fresh Fruit and Vegetables, Meat, Dairy, and Bakery. This gives consumers a sense of individual difference, and extends the shopping experience.

Short trip shoppers are encouraged to get in, and get out, e.g., buy milk, bread, etc., where as long term shoppers are led through the store, and tend to spend more. The placement of bread and milk at the back of the shop is now being seen by psychologists and designers as ineffecient, although most supermarkets still believe that this has an effect in encouraging impulse purchases. The evidence from research suggests that this is not necessarily the case, and it is more efficient to have these products toward the front of the store, but with other impulse products close by. Smart supermarkets are putting a small area with a limited selection of bread and milk at the front of the shop, for those people whose motives will not be modified, and having a more extensive selection of bread at the back (on one side) and milk at the back (on the other side).

Some tips to save you money and time when you’re at the supermarket.

  • Make a list and (mostly) stick to it: even the activity of making a list means that you are more cognitively involved in the decision-making process. It also prevents you from buying things you know you don’t need.
  • Don’t go when you’re hungry: This one is a common suggestion because it’s pretty obvious. When you’re hungry, everything looks good. Research also tells us that when you are hungry, you are less able to engage with decision-making at a rational level.
  • Skip prepared foods: You can save a ton of money just by cutting the chicken yourself. The cost of prepared foods is in the preparation (by someone else).
  • Make your own prepared foods
  • Don’t buy pre-packaged lettuce/salad bags: buy a whole lettuce, or shop at stores that allow you to put your own lettuce into bags. The difference in price can be more than 500 per cent.
  • Be brand agnostic: If all things are equal, go with what’s cheaper. Generic products are usually as good as the brand name products. Also, a sale on a brand named product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper than generic version. At least try the generic brands.

Supermarket trolleys to include advertising screens

Interesting Insight – Why we see red so vividly


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15 Responses to The science of supermarket psychology

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