Most of us consider grocery shopping a chore, like vacuuming the living room or putting gas in the car. Regardless, such an errand can’t be ignored if we want there to be food in the refrigerator when we open it. Like a patient of mine said recently, “I tried to live on love one time. I got all warm and fuzzy but maaaaaan was I hungry.”
For an organ with no mouth, the stomach can be an insufferable nag!
Grocery stores offer a service many of us take for granted, mainly the ability to drive a short distance for life-sustaining nutrition rather than having to grow our own, but what you may not realize is that every shelf, counter, and display in your local supermarket has been meticulously and scientifically arranged to separate you from your money.
They accomplish this so subtly that we rarely even realize it’s happening.
The Grocery Store Decompression Zone
“Decompression Zone” is an actual term used by grocery store layout experts. It represents the first few feet of space right inside the front door. It exists to elevate your mood, help you acclimate to your surroundings, and prepare you for your shopping experience.
Have you ever noticed that the really great-smelling areas of the grocery store like the bakery, flower counter, and coffee shop, are often the first sections you encounter upon entering the supermarket? That’s not a mistake. Those departments are strategically placed there because behavioral psychologists have learned that familiar, pleasant aromas calm us down and generate positive feelings toward our environment.
That’s why grocery stores bake their own bread even though having bread delivered is cheaper, easier, and more convenient.
Expect to see some sale displays in the decompression zone as well. Grocery stores want you to get the impression of big savings immediately.
The First Grocery Area: Produce
After the cheerful yet soothing music hits your ears and your nostrils are full of comforting smells, the next area you’ll likely encounter is the fresh produce section.
It seems rather silly that the one category of food most easily damaged is first to go in your cart, followed by the boxes and cans. But produce sections are first because they are typically clean, bright, and colorful, and bright colors are pleasing to the eye.
Red is most eye-catching, blue promotes trust, and yellow makes us hungry, at least according to psychology.
Think about it. How would you feel about your shopping experience if the first products you encountered were foot powder and bug spray?
The Grocery Store “Thigh to Eye” Zone
Product placement is a psychological science having more to do with profits than convenience. This fact is most clearly illustrated by the grocery store “thigh to eye” zone.
The “thigh to eye” zone is the shelf area directly in front of the average shopper where goods are accessible without bending or reaching. Items placed here will have the highest profit margins or will have been “rented” by food manufacturers for the highest price. Some “end caps” (displays at the end of each aisle) can cost food companies up to $1 million to display their brand of merchandise.
Brand names are commonly positioned just inside the aisles with main staples directly at the midpoint. Why? Because most people don’t just wander around the store aimlessly. They enter only the aisles which contain products they need. So brand names encourage people to enter the aisle while staple products (like coffee) get them to continue to the center.
Products made for children, on the other hand, are always placed directly within their line of sight. Sugary cereal, for instance, will be lower on the shelf while granola and bran cereals are higher up. Grocery stores are well aware of the “public whine factor” that makes parents uncomfortable and reflexively purchase items for kids rather than have them cause a scene, so they’ll make every effort to attract your children’s attention.
How Grocery Stores Keep You Inside
The main goal behind the grocery store layout is easy navigation for the customer while slowing them down as much as possible. The longer you spend in the store, the more money (on average) you’ll spend on goods and services. Here are a few clever ways they keep us from leaving too quickly:
1. Many grocery stores won’t let you leave the same way you enter. You have to weave around a few displays first and exit by the cash registers. And you thought this was for security purposes.
2. The milk and dairy section will always be the greatest number of steps from the front door. These are the staples that spoil the fastest and the most common reason we “run to the store real quick.” It’s not an oversight that you have to walk by a dozen aisles to pick up some eggs, and then walk by them again to leave.
3. Customers visiting the pharmacy are often in the store only to fill a prescription. You’ll usually find the pharmacy in the back too, and there will be plenty of “impulse buys” on your way there.
4. Free sample stations are never in a corner out of everyone’s way. They’re smack dab in the middle of high traffic areas so customers have to slow down and navigate around them. Small sample sizes are known to make us hungry too, so you’ll be more apt to toss some extra snacks in your cart.
5. Greeting card, magazine, and DVD racks are called “chill areas” and encourage shoppers to linger. Be careful of the impulse buys nearby because they can cost more than the same items located elsewhere in the store.
6. Foods we need to compare like soups, salad dressings, and over-the-counter medications, as well as “emotional” items like baby food, will be found in areas where you won’t feel rushed. Comparison shoppers who feel hurried end up leaving the store empty-handed.
7. Bank branches and other businesses are located in grocery stores to increase the length of time you spend there.
8. And many supermarkets also offer fresh food and seating areas so you can visit for lunch or bring work with you and stay. You’re going to get hungry sooner or later.
How Grocery Stores Track You
Okay, maybe you’re thinking this all seems a bit conspiracy theory-ish, but ask yourself what incentive a grocery store has in offering their customers a “discount card.” Is it done out of sheer kindness for their most beloved and loyal customers?
Every time you swipe your discount card, the computer system tracks what you’re buying, how much you’re spending, and how often you shop. They then use that info to target their marketing campaigns in print and on TV.
Another frightening practice I came across while researching this article was something called “video mining” in which computer software analyzes security camera footage to study customer’s actions and behavior. Video image recognition software can sort people by age, gender, and ethnicity to determine how customers shop, how long they were there, their route through the store, which layout designs were effective, and other data.
Retail psychology experts (yes, there is such a thing) say there’s probably no way to stop this type of behavioral manipulation. Subliminal marketing is powerful and effective so it’s not likely to disappear anytime soon.
There are a few ways we can even the playing field, though. Impulse buys are more likely to occur when you aren’t paying attention, so make a list, don’t go shopping while hungry, leave the kids at home if possible, and get out of the store as quickly as possible.