#10: Supermarkets aren’t convenient

We think we’re in charge when we walk through the supermarket sliding doors, but that’s naive. Be in no doubt: when we enter the gleaming aisles, we’re entering a fully immersive, three dimensional, 360 degree, multi-sensory marketing experience. Every last element has been fine-tuned to nudge us into making just one more purchase.

The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not supermarkets are convenient, but more for whom are they convenient: us or them?

It’s Christmas 2015 and I’m standing outside our local Waitrose with a clipboard and my house mate Tara. Tara is bullish. “I pride myself on not getting taken in by advertising,” she says. “We’ll see,” I reply. I’m here to observe the advertising machine in action, while Tara does a little dinner shopping.

The Entrance

Before we’ve even got through the door, marketing minds are already at work. The supermarket entrance is filled with a colourful display of flowers, an attractive show that welcomes us and eases down our defences. We walk into a sort of events area that tries to feel like a comfortable living room, except with shopping baskets instead of sofas.

There’s a decorated Christmas tree, twinkling with fairy lights. Warm greens and reds confirm that it is indeed time to be thinking of mince pies and Christmas pudding. Gold and silver “presents” dangle from the ceiling. The festive theme is picked up throughout the store, but this events area makes sure we’re in the right frame of mind from the start, primed to be generous.

The supermarket entrance is located on the far left hand side of the wall. Directly in front of us, but screened off by the Christmas display, are the checkouts. Why? To facilitate circulation. Because most of the world is right-side dominant, people seem to have a tendency to turn right when they enter any room, building, or indeed field. This is why the pitches first on the right are most highly valued by car boot sellers.

Although the actual science behind customer behaviour is a little more complicated than that, Waitrose have set up this shop so that there is no doubt: we will turn right, towards the fruit and vegetables. From there we will naturally continue in an anti-clockwise fashion around the whole store until we reach the checkouts, back where we started.

Supermarkets don’t want you to skip through your shopping list; they want to make sure you see every single promotional opportunity they’ve spent so much money carefully engineering. Because supermarkets are such big business, none of their marketing is slap-dash guesswork: they are sales techniques supported by real psychological studies.

Tara sniffs the air. “Coffee!” she says, pointing to a self-service coffee machine, free for owners of Waitrose loyalty cards. “Don’t forget the smells,” she adds. “They’re really important.” She’s not wrong. In a remarkable controlled experiment, psychiatrist Alan Hirsch used aromas to increase by over 50% the amount of money gambled in a Las Vegas casino. Scary.

One of the problems with supermarket food is that a lot of it is packaged and sealed for freshness: luckily, scientists from PepsiCo are developing packaging that will squirt aroma in your face – a nice strong coffee smell from a sealed pack of Nescafe, say.

In the time it takes the average shopper to pick up a shopping basket, we’ve counted four carefully designed marketing interventions to encourage us to buy.

High Draw Produce

Fruit and veg displays are always the first thing you see once you get into the supermarket proper. If they were positioned for our convenience, then you’d expect to find the easily bruised fruit near the checkouts so that they don’t get crushed under all your other shopping.

But they’re not positioned for our convenience, they’re positioned to draw us in. Like flowers, they’re bright, colourful and we like the associations of freshness. If they encourage us to load up on fruit and veg first thing, supermarkets have found that we’re more likely to treat ourselves with profitable crap later on.

Fresh produce are also a “high draw product”. High draw products are the basics, the products you are likely to want every time you go food shopping. Again, if the supermarket was set up for our convenience, we’d expect to have these high draw products all gathered together in one place by the entrance. Needless to say, that never happens.

Four high draw products occupy the four different corners of Waitrose, while a fifth occupies the very centre. If you want fruit and vegetables, meat or fish, bread, alcohol and milk on your trip to the supermarket, you are going to have to schlep around the entire shop.

Tara is here for just a few bits and pieces: fruit and vegetables, tea bags and some fish for dinner. That short list, however, is enough to guarantee we’ll be marching down almost every aisle.

I stood for some minutes in front of the milk display in awed admiration: aisle four of seven, dead centre. Tara shakes me out of my reverie. “Come on, Dave, this is getting boring.”

Tara escapes the fruit and veg section with no more upselling than a couple of reduced passion fruits that she’s pretty pleased with. But fruit and veg isn’t where the money is. Having guaranteed our circulation, it’s time for the promotion wars to begin.

Impulse Shopping

Fast selling “gondola ends” are filled with Christmas “offers” and bewildering combinations of impulse buys: cheese, chicken fillets, Muller Lights, all jumbled together with bright red stickers advertising a third off. Displaying products out of any logical order means we spend more time staring helplessly at the shelves, giving the impulse advertising a chance to work on our capricious brains.

These end displays are used for snap purchases and to lure you into taking a stroll down the whole aisle. It’s the supermarket equivalent of Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item, also bought…” You might not walk down every aisle, but it’s almost impossible not to walk past every single gondola end.

Over the years, supermarkets have conditioned us to expect bargains at the end of aisles and that means we’re 30% more likely to buy items from there than in the middle – regardless of whether they’re genuine bargains or not – and with their garish attention-seeking “barkers”, products sell up to eight times faster when stocked on gondola ends.

Tara spends a few minutes comparing the prices of salmon fillets. “It’s good you can buy just the one,” she says, before realising that they’re more expensive per kilogram. “Cheeky bastards,” she adds, putting the package back on the shelf.

She moseys over to the fresh fish deli counter and orders a couple of Waitrose-made fish cakes instead. She’s happy, but I can’t help thinking that she’s been upsold; they’re £1.69 each.

We carry on with the shop, occasionally pausing to admire the apposite positioning of “complementary products”. Next to a cabinet of fresh pasta are ready made pasta sauces and a display of olive oil; pizzas are paired with ready made garlic bread; ketchup and pickled onions are next to the sausages; and you can’t get to the tea and coffee without walking past the biscuits. This is the supermarket equivalent of Amazon’s “Frequently bought together” upselling technique.

These impulse buys are also often high margin. Making your own pasta or pizza is a bit of an effort and I can see why people plump for convenience over cost, but a pasta sauce is very easy and cheap to make, and garlic bread is even easier. One supermarket study has shown that, even when we write lists, more than half of our buying decisions are made on the spot.

Tara picks up some kidney beans and, while we’re on the dried food aisle, I show her how cartoon cereal box characters make creepily direct eye contact with kids. Fatal error. She ends up buying some Kellogg’s Star Wars breakfast cereal as a gift for her boyfriend. I let her off, as it’s a present, but that’s £2.79 Waitrose shouldn’t have extracted. I also let her off because I sneak a can of pumpkin into her shopping basket (gondola end magic). It’s imported from the US and also a gift.

Two slaps on the wrist for us.


Finally, via the tea section at the very back of the shop, we make our way around to the checkout. We pick the baskets only express line and are immediately faced with a long queue.

There’s a reason for this and it’s got nothing to do with serving customers faster. Supermarkets know that, if you only have a few items, you’re less tolerant of waiting. The last thing they want is your frustration, so they install express checkout lanes. This reduces your wait time, but actually increases the average waiting time of all customers, if you include those who use the regular checkouts. It might even increase everyone’s waiting times if there are many express checkout customers because it’s not the scanning of items that takes time, it’s packing up and paying.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the supermarkets, however. As we wait, opportunities to sling one last thing into our basket abound: lottery tickets, snacks, newspapers, bottled water and chewing gum.

The Receipt

On this short trip, we faced down no less than twelve distinct marketing techniques: the entrance flowers, the Christmas bonhomie, the anti-clockwise layout, the coffee smells, the fruit and veg, high draw products scattered throughout the store, reduced passion fruit, end cap offers, deli counters, complementary products, cereal and pumpkin impulse buys and the checkout snacks.

I feel like we managed to resist in the main, but the receipt tells a different story. A quarter of the bill is accounted for by our impulse buys.

Supermarkets know that you’re not going to fall for every trick in the book, but all it takes is one trick to slip through and they’ve successfully parted you from more cash than you intended. According to one survey, “special offers” could be costing you around £11 per shop.

On the one hand, I’m full of admiration for the sophistication with which they go about their business. On the other hand, I’m horrified.

I’m not completely naive; the market traders of Cairo are also pretty adept at manipulating money from my pockets. But at least that is still a human interaction and, afterwards if not during, I am painfully aware that I’ve been had. I can learn my lesson and next time maybe I’ll come out on top. At the supermarket, while I think I know why I bought tinned pumpkin (as a gift for a friend), I can’t shake the idea that those Christmas decorations primed both me and Tara to buy gifts.

Despite everything, Waitrose wins. How convenient!

Further Reading

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. William Heinemann 2012. p185

Hirsch, Alan R. ‘Effects of Ambient Odors on Slot-Machine Usage in a Las Vegas Casino’. Psychology and Marketing 12, no. 7 (1 October 1995): 585–94. doi:10.1002/mar.4220120703.

Spence, Charles. ‘Leading the Consumer by the Nose: On the Commercialization of Olfactory Design for the Food and Beverage Sector’. Flavour 4 (2015): 31. doi:10.1186/s13411-015-0041-1.

‘Surviving the Sneaky Psychology of Supermarkets’ The Plate, National Geographic, 15 June 2015. .

‘How Do Supermarkets Tempt You to Spend More Money?’ BBC Guides.

‘Chapter 16: Merchandising’. National Retail Hardware Association. p3

Musicus, Aviva, Aner Tal, and Brian Wansink. “Eyes in the Aisles Why Is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?.” Environment and Behavior 47, no. 7 (2015): 715-733.

Schimmel, Maarten. ‘Deployment of Express Checkout Lines at Supermarkets’. Research Paper Business Analytics, 2013.

Mele, Christopher. ‘How to Pick the Fastest Line at the Supermarket’. New York Times.

Money Advice Service survey of more than 2,000 consumers reported in ‘Shoppers “Fail to Spot Cheapest Deals” – BBC News’.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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