Supermarket secrets: The tactics used to get you to spend more

Alex Thompson By Alex Thompson Jun11,2024
Key Points
  • Supermarket promotional tactics may be contributing to high grocery bills.
  • A recent survey showed many Australians struggled to identify if an item promoted as discounted really was cheaper.
  • An expert says that being aware of these promotional tactics can reduce grocery bills.
Many Australians are struggling to afford groceries and even the most basic supermarket trips can run into three figures.
Indeed, the average weekly grocery bill can range between $78 to $210 depending on where someone shops, according to comparison site Finder’s consumer sentiment tracker. About two in five tracker survey respondents said the supermarket shop was among their most stressful expenses.
While part of the reason for this is the country’s food inflation rate of 3.8 per cent, supermarkets’ promotional tactics may also be leading consumers to spend more than they otherwise would.

“(Supermarkets) have several things in place to get consumers to spend more time in the stores and therefore end up spending more,” said Professor Nitika Garg from the University of New South Wales’ School of Marketing.

What tactics do supermarkets use?

Like many retail spaces, supermarkets use a series of tactics that are designed to catch consumers’ attention and influence what they decide to buy. Product placement is one of these tactics.
In many supermarkets, staple foods such as milk, bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables are far away from each other — forcing consumers to walk longer distances.
More expensive items also tend to be placed at eye level.

Discretionary items that are on sale such as fizzy drinks, chocolate and crisps will often be placed at the ends of aisles and in between staple items.

“They do want you to go through as much of the real estate in the store as possible,” Garg said.
A survey conducted by financial planning firm KDM Financial found that 62 per cent of shoppers make an impulse buy when shopping in-store.
Supermarkets also use sound and other senses to slow people down on their shopping trips.

“For example [supermarkets] … have their own music channels, and they curate them specifically for times of day for seasons of the year to help consumers move slower or faster depending on what they need and the layout of the store,” said Garg.

Is a deal actually a deal?

There are two main categories of deals that consumers see in supermarkets.
The first is locked-in deals, which typically feature bright red labels and display a price capped until a specific date. The other is store deals, which will include promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free deals.
Products that are on sale are often what are called loss leaders — products sold at cost or below cost to attract new consumers. Fruits and vegetables often fall in this category, which incentivises people to buy more.

“Sometimes we end up picking something just because we think, ‘Oh, it is such a good deal or it might be such a good deal, let me just get it because what if I don’t get it tomorrow?'”

The majority of Australians, according to consumer group CHOICE.
The group conducted research in which more than 1,000 people were shown nine photos of labels from Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi featuring different phrases such as ‘low price’, ‘down down’, and ‘super savers’.
It asked them if they thought the price on the label represented a discount, and whether that was quick and easy to determine. CHOICE found there was “widespread confusion”, with many incorrectly believing , or not being sure either way.
“It is particularly difficult for people who are time poor, perhaps raising a young family, they don’t have the time to keep track of supermarket prices and are not being provided with the resources they need to make informed purchasing decisions,” CHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Bea Sherwood said in response to the survey’s findings.

A Coles spokesperson told SBS News it had “several specials mechanisms” in place to help customers “spot great value”, and a Woolworths spokesperson said the supermarket giant “worked hard” to communicate its prices “clearly and accurately”.

Some things to keep in mind during your next shop

One of the easiest ways to prevent yourself from going over budget is by creating a list and sticking to it, as well as checking in with yourself when a discounted product catches your eye.
“Before purchasing a discounted product, it’s important to think about if you will actually use it,” Garg said.

“Even if it’s a deal, will you end up using it all right now?”

A supermarket interior advertising specials

Professor Nitika Garg from UNSW says it’s important for shoppers to ask themselves if a discounted product they’re thinking of buying is something they will actually use. Source: AAP / Lukas Coch

A study by Deakin University found that supermarkets put junk food on special twice as much as they do fresh food, which may contribute to overspending at the supermarket.

“You don’t have to buy chocolate, you don’t have to buy fizzy drinks, but if they’re advertised you might…” Garg said.
She added the important thing is to be better informed about supermarket tactics and remain aware of them when you’re shopping.
“You really need to pay attention to what you’re putting in your basket and why. I know it’s a little stressful, but that’s what’s needed if you really want to save money.”
And for more stories head to  – a new podcast series from SBS, hosted by Ricardo Gonçalves and Peggy Giakoumelo. They explore one area where consumers can make savings with an expert in the field. From supermarkets to rents, nutrition to petrol and so much more, learn about the strategies used to get you to spend more, and more importantly, what you can do, to spend less
Follow Cost of Living Secrets on the , or wherever you get your podcasts.
Alex Thompson

By Alex Thompson

Alex is an award-winning journalist with a passion for investigative reporting. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Alex has covered a wide range of topics from politics to entertainment. Known for in-depth research and compelling storytelling, Alex's work has been featured in major news outlets around the world.

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One thought on “Supermarket secrets: The tactics used to get you to spend more”
  1. As a shopper, it’s frustrating to realize that supermarkets deliberately make us walk longer distances by strategically placing essential items far apart. This tactic not only increases our time in the store but also tempts us to grab extra items we hadn’t planned to buy, ultimately leading to higher bills. Being informed about these sneaky tactics can definitely help us save money on groceries.

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