Nutrition Articles

7 Secrets to Outsmart Your Supermarket

Look Past the Super Marketing to Protect Your Wallet and Your Waistline

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Conniving. Manipulative. Scheming. I’m not talking about your ex; I’m talking about your grocery store. On your next trip, be prepared to fight back against the tactics most supermarket chains use to get you to spend more money on "extras" that you don't really need—tactics that affect your wallet and your health.

You’re on your weekly grocery trip. You’ve got your list in hand, and you're ready to purchase the items you need for your healthy, preplanned meals. You walk through the supermarket doors and…oh! Look at the Fourth of July decorations! Visions of cookouts, party favors and kids with sparklers are now dancing through your head. You hang around the display, pick up a "two-for" deal on red, white and blue wrapped chocolates, and grab streamers and balloons because your sister-in-law might have forgotten supplies to jazz up the kids table for the party next week. 2,549 calories and at least $10 unplanned dollars later, you’ve been the victim of a grocery store plot.

Distractions at the grocery store happen, and that's no accident. Strategic product placements purposely distract you from your well-intended list and entice you to purchase those little extras. Supermarket chains spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to know exactly how, where, when, and why you shop. They use this information to get you to linger longer, fill your basket—make that your cart—to the brim, and spend more of your hard-earned cash than you intended to spend. But your grocer may be hurting more than just your wallet with these marketing maneuvers.

Let’s put on our spy gear and take a mental tour through the supermarket to investigate the nooks and crannies where stores hide their tricks. Take note so the next time you head to the grocery, you’ll have a plan of attack.

End the End Cap Enticement
Conveniently placed on the end of every aisle, "end caps" are home to sale items and seasonal kits that may not have been on your list but look oh-so-inviting when you see them. Items for s’mores, pumpkin pie, or green bean casserole are often creativity combined on these aisle ends. Foods on end caps are generally low in nutrients and high in added fat and sugar. Battle plan: If it’s on your list for greater health, you just saved a trip down the aisle. If it’s not, smile, but keep walking past the pretty display and find your next listed item.

Shelve Your Impulses
Major brands pay grocers to shelve their top-selling items at eye level. They even go so far as to place products geared toward children right within their little paws’ reach—cartoon characters, bright colors and all are low to the ground or cart-level for wee ones who sit in the seat of your shopping cart. Battle plan: Make an educated decision. Glance up and down before choosing an item (less inexpensive generic items, often the same nutritionally, might be lower or higher on the shelf than more expensive brand named products). And always check out the nutrition facts label. Also, if you are shopping with the kiddies, ask them to help you find healthful foods in the store. Turn your grocery list into a scavenger hunt checklist to play as you shop.
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About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

Member Comments

  • JICAMA19
    I will never leave home without my shopping list. - 8/13/2014 8:41:14 PM
  • All really good suggestions. - 7/23/2014 6:31:23 AM
  • WBROWN205
    Aldi is where I shop and mostly use their own brands, and with a double your money back guarantee, I feel economically wise shopping here - 7/22/2014 10:55:43 AM
  • My mantras: "Buy what you USE, not what you need". and "A purchase made in anticipation of use is not an impulse purchase." PLUS all the good tips in the article and comments. - 11/21/2013 9:41:25 AM
  • I am always amazed at how Americans can't turn down anything free. Free samples are their weakness. When I'm in the grocery store and someone asks me if I want a free sample, saying "No thank you" makes their brain nearly explode from confusion.

    - 11/21/2013 9:33:00 AM
  • Great article! I use several of these tips, especially DO NOT SHOP WITH AN EMPTY STOMACH! For whatever reason, the few times I do so, I magically go about $20 over budget.

    End caps and the check-outs are a killer for me usually, but I've gotten better. Last week, I was able to say NO to both pumpkin-spice cookies and hot-chocolate cake mix. I felt like a total boss walking out of the store with my budget intact. - 11/21/2013 8:59:14 AM
  • I agree with AZURE-SKY. I go early in the morning and I go in the week. I don't like shopping on the week - 7/3/2013 8:30:27 AM
  • yep if you are really needing to or good about saving money that helps. keeps me from over spending on extra stuff i dont want/need like 90% of the time. i learn more and more as i gain experiences what store has better prices for which items i need. im glad im not extremely poor but i definitely dont need to waste money on extraneous items not on my list. also ive noticed with fresh stuff or certain veggies they are cheapest in their non packaged form. i love getting my carrots/kale/garl
    ic etc usually all under a dollar depending on how much i want :) - 6/5/2013 2:47:21 AM
  • CANUCKSFAN2
    One way to avoid the samples is to not go on the busy shopping days (Saturday or Sunday) or if you can't avoid those days, go early in the day and you won't find them. - 6/4/2013 11:56:59 AM
  • one way i plan ahead, is getting all the fliers, sales papers and checking who has the best bargain on certain items, making a list and going on a full tummy....i do not buy party favors, etc, the dolled up paper plates and napkins, a trip to the dollar tree, everything for a dollar if i am in need of anything like that.
    stock up on fruits and veggies at the road side market or farmers markets, that way you arent tempted by the bakery and bread items that are placed along the aisles as you make your way to the produce section in most groceries.. i fell for tricks like these, but, i ended up with stuff i would never use and threw away, my family was the worst to cook enough cookout food for 35 people, when there was only 8 maybe 12 ppl there to eat.
    go in with list in hand, full tummy, and wear your blinders, dont look to the left or the right, focus straight ahead - 6/3/2013 5:04:58 PM
  • Im not sure where Esperi is shopping, but I see this in every supermarket I go to in Spain (Ive lived here for 13 years now). Anyhow, you cant blame supermarkets for their marketing tactics. They are, after all, running a business and there to make as much profit as possible. I think theyre actually very clever. We just need to shop smart and stay focussed! - 6/2/2013 4:58:33 AM
  • TIMETOCHANGE66
    I circle the outside aisles of the grocery store and only go down aisles if there is something there on my list. I also don't go to fancy grocery stores...they design the store to make food more appetizing...I stick to the basic store and I spend less. I budget for $50 a week per person and we always have lots to eat. I keep a grocery jar too where money is put in on a bi-weekly basis and if you take money out you put back the change with the receipt. It works ! Shop alone...sometimes I take my husband but things have a way of jumping into the cart behind my back...that is sometimes the price to pay for him bagging my groceries for me. - 3/19/2013 10:50:09 AM
  • My favorite strategy for shopping without spending or eating too much is to carry a basket vs use a cart. It's an incredible work out too! It really shows you the consequences of your own actions. I still impulse buy, but I have to put SOME thought into it, because if it weighs the basket down too much or fills it too much, I can't carry the basket anymore and have to lose some items. - 12/5/2012 1:40:21 PM
  • I must say that here in Spain this does not exist. In Sweden the last meters to the cashier always was filled with snacks and sweets but here those things stay in there aisle and you have to go there to get them.
    There is only one small shelf in front of the checkout for an offer which is very often fabric softener, bread or potato...
    LOVE SPAIN!!! - 5/11/2012 3:53:56 AM
  • One more thing - I KNOW when they are going to have free samples of things I DO eat - and I manage to make a whole FREE MEAL out of that. Even if it means being there when the sample clerks are taking breaks, changing shifts, etc, so someone who doesn't know me will give me more. Flatter them, compliment the food: do whatever it takes to get your nutrients FREE. - 5/7/2012 12:29:05 PM