Tricks of the trade

A sneaky game is being played in the aisles of our supermarkets, and we're paying the price. 

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The latest figures out this week suggest we paid almost 2 per cent more for a basket of goods in January 2017 than we did the previous year, the highest rate of increase since the middle of 2014. 

It may not sound like much but as we browse the shelves of the local supermarket, we're being pushed to spend increasing amounts on food.

Toblerone, Tropicana, WKD Original Vodka, and Iceland frozen chips have all hit the headlines over their controversial decisions to shrink the size of their products while leaving the price the same.  It’s become so commonplace that a new term has even been coined: shrinkflation.

But that’s not the only way that groceries are starting to cost shoppers more. As wages stagnate supermarkets are fighting to ensure they keep our business and to ensure we keep spending.

However, forewarned is forearmed. Here are some of the methods supermarkets and producers regularly use to encourage customers to part with their cash.

Price anchoring

Many large supermarkets have a vast array of choice on offer, but that choice is not as liberating as it may seem.

Ben Pugh, founder and CEO of online ethical grocery company Farmdrop, says: “Supermarkets manipulate customer's purchasing behaviour by providing an overwhelming array of choice.”

They do this through a technique known as ‘price anchoring’. This means that if there are three options priced at £1, £3 and £7 pounds, the shopper will typically pick the £3 one over the £1 one, even if that means spending three-times more than they normally would.

Supermarkets offer a very expensive option in order to anchor customers’ first impressions on price, encouraging them to buy the slightly more expensive option.

Pugh says this is part of the reason shoppers spend less at the major discounters like Lidl and Aldi because they only provide one option for a food item or household product, compared to the many multiples offered by the big six supermarkets.

Controlled walking speed

You may think that the speed at which you progress through the supermarket is down to your own will and whimsy, but actual research has been carried out into perfecting customer pace.

Bram Van den Bergh of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, says that retailers need to ensure customers don’t rush and miss products but also that they keep moving to avoid congestion at the shelves.

His study revealed that adding lines to the floor of supermarket aisles could directly affect the speed shoppers moved at – closer lines gave the impression the aisle was longer than it really was and slowed them down. Lines that were farther apart made the aisles seem shorter and sped them up.

Research like this shows just how micro-managed it’s possible for the supermarket to be.

Particular price packaging

Many customers would be surprised if they knew the level of planning, care and research that goes into designing packaging that sets pricing expectations – or distracts from a price that seems inflated.

Steve Oakey, creative director at strategic branding company Eat With Your Eyes, says: “In terms of packaging, by elevating something to a more premium position it makes price less of a factor. It makes you more willing to compromise on scale and quantity.

“Simple design elements can make all the difference – for example, a die-cut window where you can actually see inside – helps take your eye away from the price or size and gets you thinking about the quality and great taste you can experience.”

Interestingly, customers are reassured by all sorts of different packaging quirks. Oakey says, for example, that many companies now print on the unpolished side of packaging, giving a more naturally look and feel. “It subtly evokes a non-glossy honesty and gets the confidence of the customer,” he explains.

Not-so special offers

Many retailers have agreed to curb their use of buy-one-get-one-free offers because it encourages waste, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t using other offers to persuade shoppers to spend.

And Natasha Rachel Smith, spokesperson for the deals website TopCashback.co.uk, says many of those offers are not as appealing as they seem.

She says: “Retailers know that people are attracted by special offers, buy-one-get-one-free and two for £2 deals, however, occasionally these may be misleading and work out more expensive.

“For example, when supermarkets offer two for £4 on Doritos but the price per product is only £2, there is no saving to be had and often the consumer spends more money on items they do not need. Or when a washing tablet deal is priced at £7 for a bag containing 50, but a smaller bag containing 20 is £2, by buying three smaller packets you can get 60 tablets for £6.

“The best way to get around it is to work out the cost per item/volume (e.g. grams or litres) which is often displayed on the supermarket shelf.”

Mind games

Paranoid as it may sound, supermarkets really do spend research money trying to get into shoppers’ minds, including brain scans, eyeball cams and crowd-modelling software to devise increasingly sophisticated ways of nudging shoppers into spending more.

That’s why smaller, impulse buys are placed near the tills, where we are likely to buy them as a reward for the shopping work we’ve just done. And it’s why some big brands will pay supermarkets to stock them at the optimum height for purchase – it turns out that consumers are more likely to browse the shelves that are just below eye level.

Essentials such as milk and bread are often placed at the back of the shop, requiring consumers to traipse through the other aisles and increasing the chances they will add items to their basket on the way.

Creating a sense of occasion for some products – for example, stocking the wine in an area with a wooden floor, makes us less likely to question higher prices because it adds to the sense of premium.

All these techniques and more have been extensively researched and deployed to ensure shoppers spend as much as possible.

Beat the techniques

It’s very hard to beat such tactics. They have been designed to take advantage of our habits, natural inclinations, sense of occasion and desire for a bargain.

However, shoppers can limit their temptation by shopping with a list and sticking to it, or checking the prices as they shop using an app like MySuperMarket, allowing them to see a product’s pricing history.

But, given how much effort that might be, perhaps the easiest way to save money is to avoid all the weaponised layout architecture and shop online from home. Using a list.

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