15 Tricks Grocery Stores Use to Get You to Spend More Money

Americans spend more than $150 at the grocery store each week, according to a Gallup survey. If that’s more than you’d prefer to spend, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. In fact, you’re probably being duped by your neighborhood supermarket’s tricky psychological tactics to get you to spend more money.
It’s a cunningly orchestrated process, and we all succumb to its pressure without even realizing it. Every store feature lures us in: the layouts, carefully crafted color schemes, and even checkout counter designs. But the joke’s on them because we’ve uncovered the 15 sneakiest ways grocery stores get you to spend more money.

1. Milk in the back

grocery shopping, budget
Putting milk in the back is one way stores get you to spend more money. | iStock.com

The most popular items, such as milk, are always in the back of the store. And though some grocery managers say this is purely for logistical reasons (after all, the dairy coolers should be as close to the delivery truck as possible), others will tell you it’s purely economic reasons. It makes sense though. By placing milk in the back, you pass almost every other item in the store first.
Next: Stores are going “green.” And by green, we mean money.

2. Reusable bags

Aldi sign
Reusable bags are both a marketing and spending ploy. | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Stores, such as Ikea, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Aldi, have now combined green initiatives with advertising by introducing reusable shopping bags. Why not use this ingenious marketing ploy to send a message that you care about the environment while also making it easier for consumers to stock up on more than just the carton of eggs they came for?
Harvard Business School published research stating these bags have major influence over how much money you spend at the store and which items you buy. Not only are people buying more organically “green” goods, but they’re also stocking up on indulgent, unhealthy foods as their reward for being so virtuous. Consumers think because they dutifully bought four avocados, they can afford to splurge on double-stuffed Oreos.
Next: How music makes you spend more

3. Upbeat music

Senior gay couple shopping for groceries
Music tempo can affect how long you stay in the grocery store. | iStock.com/DavidsAdventures

Music playing in the background is not the common courtesy you think it is. Research shows music influences shopping behavior, and stores that play music often see increased sales.
But the type of music matters. A study by the American Marketing Association found up-tempo music generated more sales than when slower music played. The rate at which people roamed the aisles had a direct effect on the amount of money they spent.
Next: Reward programs benefit the store more than you.

4. Rewards programs

shopping together
Credit card reward programs are incentives for loyal customers to spend more. | iStock.com

When you sign up for the loyalty card program at your local supermarket, you might think you’re gaining access to big savings. But the stores are actually the ones saving more. Grocery stores cut expenses by catering their marketing efforts toward existing customers rather than generating new business. As a result, they profit from store loyalty.
Supermarket chains, such as Harris Teeter, Kroger, or Winn-Dixie, offer gas reward points for every dollar spent in the store as an incentive to join the program. The more you spend on groceries, the bigger discount you get on every gallon of gas.
Next: Why those loyalty programs are also tracking devices.

5. Data tracking

woman with cell phone doing shopping
Stores know all your secret spending habits. | iStock.com/Koji_Ishii

Yes, you get the occasional deal for being a rewards member at the grocery store, but what you don’t know is these cards also provide invaluable insight into your spending habits. With every checkout, stores receive tracking data on your purchases without doing any of the legwork to get it. How much are people in your zip code willing to spend on wine? How much have you spent on dog food this year? What time is the busiest for family shopping sprees? All this key information is how stores sneakily determine just how far they can push their grocery prices without losing your business.
Next: Certain colors attract certain buyers.

6. Color schemes

walmart employee
Wal-Mart uses blues and yellows to encourage bigger spending. | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Color affects shoppers, too. People are drawn into stores with warm hues, such as reds, oranges, and yellows, on the exterior. And cool interior colors, such as blues and greens, often encourage shoppers to spend more. According to CNN, citing a 2003 study published in the Journal of Business Review, customer return increases by 15% in stores with blue color schemes than those with orange.
Next: Why you should shop with your hands only

7. Bigger shopping carts

On 'Stranger Things,' Eleven steals waffles from the grocery store
Forgo the shopping cart, and use your hands to cut back on spending. | Netflix

Bread and milk can look pretty lonely lying in a big shopping cart all alone. But unless you’re buying a week’s worth of groceries, we recommend you stick to a basket — or even better, use your hands. Shopping carts have almost tripled in size since the 1970s, leaving room for you to buy more. Combat grocery store trickery by using a basket or choosing to carry the items you buy. The harder you make it to buy more, the less likely you are to spend more.
Next: Those rotisserie chickens will get you.

8. Enticing smells

florist arranging flowers in the shop
Grocery stores engage all five senses right from the start of your shopping experience. | iStock.com/DragonImages

Stores aim to bombard all five senses from the moment you walk inside. That’s why baked goods, produce, the deli, and flowers are all located at the front of the store. Right away you’ll smell the cookies, see the flowers, and gravitate toward the brightly colored fruits and veggies on display. Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is the fresh muffins on sale and the strawberries advertised as “two for $5” this week. This is all a ploy to get you to buy.
Next: Why most prices end in .99

9. Strategic pricing

Walmart employee changing price
Grocery stores employ a variety of strategic pricing. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Similar to electronics retailers, grocery stores resort to comparative pricing to make consumers think they’re getting a better deal than they actually are. By putting the average-priced item next to a more expensive organic item, shoppers will think they’ll save money by choosing the cheaper item. Really, they’re just paying the normal market price.
Consumers are also more likely to buy something that ends in .99 rather than an exact dollar amount. This is known as the left-digit effect, in which people only register the number on the left in their heads when comparing price. Something priced at $6.99 versus $7 will fly off the shelves faster because it feels a lot cheaper, regardless of the meager penny difference.
Next: Grocery stores stock more local products.

10. The education effect

young woman holding a basket full of groceries
Consumers are willing to spend more on locally sourced products. | iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz

Listing nutritional information is not just an FDA requirement stores must follow today. Many retailers use educational opportunities to make consumers spend more money. Listing recipe ideas next to the rack of ribs at the meat market or displaying nutritional benefits next to the spinach and avocados are likely to persuade the indecisive, yet conscious consumer to buy.
There’s also a strategy behind display images in stores. Consumers are willing to pay up to 25% more for locally grown or sourced foods. When stores post farmer Fred’s image next to his locally harvested cheese product, it’s simply a marketing ploy to make you spend more.
Next: Free samples are an upsell tactic.

11. Tasting samples

People walking at Trader Joes grocery store
Those guacamole samples are delicious but also a spending trick. | iStock.com/ablokhin

Colorful produce and sweet-smelling baked goods aren’t the only ways grocery stores try to activate your salivary glands. Popular chains, such as Trader Joe’s, Publix, and Costco, all provide tasting samples for consumers to try — and hopefully purchase. Then, once you decide you love that new sausage link, there’s a convenient recipe card you can grab, encouraging you to buy four other items that would round out said sausage.
Next: How stores perfectly pair items

12. End caps and commonly paired items

shopping at costco
Grocery stores use end caps to grab your attention. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Do you really need more Doritos or gummy bears? Probably not, but they’ve been placed at the end of the aisle in plain sight to get you contemplating your internal resolve. End caps (the shelving at the end of an aisle) encourage impulse buys and branded items that rack up your totals. The sign might only advertise the product itself, but you’re more inclined to think it’s on sale and buy it as a result.
It’s also a perfect opportunity to upsell by pairing items. The chips are luckily always resting right beside the queso and salsa, and the bacon is almost always next to the eggs. Online shoppers are victims, too. A website might show comparable items other people have bought, hoping you tack on more items to your virtual shopping cart.
Next: Why you should look anywhere but eye level

13. Brand placement

Man shopping in supermarket
The kid-friendly items are always placed well within their reach. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

If you could just make it through the bakery department, maybe you’ll be safe, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Aisles are just as tricky to stick to a budget due to strategic brand placement. It’s no accident kid-friendly food, such as Easy Mac and Reese’s Puffs, are placed at a child’s eye level. Expensive brand name foods and healthy cereal are at the adult eye level, an area Real Simple categorizes as the “bulls-eye zone.” Stores make it very easy for you to spend, and you’ll have to hunt for the less expensive, off-brand item.
Next: Why men overcome the Boomerang Effect better than women

14. Expertly crafted layouts

Shopping cart in a supermarket
Men are more likely to overpower the Boomerang Effect. | iStock.com/Kwangmoozaa

Everything in a store is placed on a planogram, meaning each item’s location has been carefully selected for maximum buying power. Men often dodge the so-called Boomerang Effect. They come in for one item, find it, and retrace their same steps to leave. That’s why the middle aisles hold the most popular items designed to sidetrack even the most single-minded buyer with various tempting alternatives at every turn.
Store size matters, too. In crowded places, people spend less time shopping, make fewer purchases, and feel less comfortable. Grocery stores are getting bigger and bigger to encourage a longer stay.
Next: Checkout counters are a last-ditch effort to spend more.

15. The candy bar rack

Candy is advertised at the checkout counter to encourage impulse buys. | iStock.com

Much to the dismay of candy companies and grocery retailers, candy is a very seasonal item mostly purchased for holidays. To increase sales, candy bar racks are placed in the most-visited section of the store: the checkout counter.
A theory is retailers are appealing to your decision fatigue, where your brain is tired from making all those difficult food choices earlier. You’re more likely to pick up that Kit-Kat when exhausted, succumbing to an impulsive purchase at the register. To make matters worse, a few stores have added lighting to their racks, making those wrappers even more shiny and appealing to sugar-craving customers.
Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.