This is the first part of a two-part series on how to get the most of your supermarket-shopping experience. Part One discusses how supermarkets try to get you to spend more time and money than you originally wanted. Part Two, to come later, will lead you step by step through a supermarket trip, and give you tips on how to buy food the right way. The simple fact of the matter is that going grocery shopping isn’t—and never was—as simple as you imagined, whether you’re on your own for the first time, or you’ve been shopping for a family of eight for 20 years. Sometimes it seems less like you’re going out to buy milk and bread than you’re buffeted by endless marketing, too many choices, and not enough information. Does the perky green label mean that this box of cereal is good for me?
Are there certain expiration dates that are less important than others? Am I a bad mom if I buy frozen spinach for dinner? How do I know what kind of fish to buy? Am I right to be a little scared of the butcher? And how did I end up spending $150 if all I went in for was some milk and bread? Even professional food writers and editors ask these questions. (Butchers’ cleavers look scary!) But if you really want to learn how to do something right, you have to put aside your ego, go back to the basics, and approach everything you thought you knew as if you were a newborn—or maybe a freshman in college whose every previous meal had come from Mom, McDonald’s, or the lunch ladies at school. And who better to teach these lessons than five experts who could deconstruct a basic trip to “make groceries” (as they say in New Orleans) from five different angles? In this case, they were BA senior food editor Dawn Perry; environmental psychologist and author of What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping Paco Underhill; architect and supermarket designer Kevin Kelley, of the firm Shook Kelley; the director of the graduate nutrition program at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University, Sharon Akabas; and efficiency expert Gwynnae Byrd.
And they had a lot of wisdom to impart—so much, in fact, that it’s best to tackle this topic in two parts. In the second part, to come later, the experts will lead you through the basics of getting the most out of your supermarket shopping, step by step, from the parking lot to checkout. In this part, they talk about how the supermarket gets you to spend your time and money. From the lighting to the little old lady handing out cheese on crackers, everything inside the store has been plotted out to make you buy more, more, more. And if you’re going to be a conscientious—even conscious—shopper, you should know what you’re up against. Going to the supermarket is never as simple as popping in for a carton of milk. “Upward of 50 percent of what we buy in a supermarket we had no intention of buying as we walked in the door,” psychologist Underhill says. Supermarkets aren’t faring too well these days, getting by on razor-thin margins and facing increased competition from bargain markets like Aldi, natural- and organic-themed markets like Whole Foods, and big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. They’re even feeling threatened by farmers’ markets, food co-ops, CSAs, and backyard gardeners.
So you can’t blame them for doing what they need to do to survive. And what the supermarkets know they do best—and what no farmers’ market, food co-op, CSA, or backyard gardener can match—is saturate you with options. The average supermarket has 64,000 products—sixty-four thousand, meaning that you’d have to eat or use more than 175 different products every day for a year before you tried everything once. That variety is a supermarket’s greatest strength—and its biggest threat to shoppers. When you’re surrounded by tens of thousands of possible breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts, it’s hard for the human brain to say “no” to just one more thing to buy. “The biggest enemy to efficiency is the paralysis we experience from the overwhelming amount of choices,” efficiency expert Byrd says. “So you go in there to get two items and come out with 20. Marketers are really good at getting us to buy stuff we don’t need.” But sometimes people go the other way—their brains are so overloaded with possibilities that they freeze and fall back on old habits, taking refuge in ruts. That’s when shoppers are vulnerable to the siren call of that rotisserie chicken or premade lasagna.
“It’s the seduction of ease,” supermarket designer Kelley says. “People should be trying to be more consciously aware of the seduction going on around them, because it’s easy to fall into the rut of ‘eating out’ at the grocery store—and they’re paying a premium for that.” The position of everything in your supermarket has been carefully planned out. Though the people who commission, design, and build it would be loath to call it a trap, almost every aspect of a supermarket has a primary goal in mind: to subtly convince shoppers to spend more time inside, thus giving products more opportunities to all but leap into their carts. That’s why, much as in a casino, you’re not likely to see many indicators of the time, like clocks, skylights, or even windows. (Though newer and more energy-conscious supermarket designs, like the ones Whole Foods uses, have begun to embrace skylights.) “In the modern 21st-century grocery store, someone has thought through everything about it in every way, shape, manner or form,” Underhill says. “The basic layout hasn’t changed much in almost 80 years: I walk in, produce tends to be up front and to the right, meat and seafood tend to be back and to the right, dairy is generally in the back left-hand corner—the deepest section of the store.
The reason why is that virtually everyone who walks in has some dairy product on their list.” Think about your usual supermarket routine. Chances are, if your market is designed like the majority in the U.S., you start shopping at the right side of the store and work your way around the outer rim of the supermarket—with occasional forays into certain aisles, but generally sticking to a counterclockwise route till you get to the register. Now you may wonder, Why do I always choose to go that way? The answer is, you don’t. Whoever designed the supermarket chose that path for you, and for a particular reason: About nine in ten people are right-handed, and a counterclockwise route makes it easier for right-handed people to put stuff in their carts. “Most stores work better with a counterclockwise circulation pattern because you tend to push your cart with your left hand and pick things up with your right hand,” Underhill says. So supermarkets are usually designed with their most alluring sensations—the bright colors of the floral or produce sections, or the tantalizing smells of the bakery—to the right and front of the store, drawing shoppers into a preplanned route that takes them around the building in exactly the order that the supermarket wants.
Most shoppers see the produce section first, because the bright colors and enticing fragrances are meant to draw them in. And the subtle persuasion doesn’t stop there. Supermarkets make their most money off of sections on the perimeter, especially produce (but whether people actually use the produce they buy, of course, is another matter—but more on that in Part Two). Supermarkets make the least profit in the center aisles—the worst sellers being those that contain products you can also get at the drugstore or corner store, like mouthwash, garbage bags, paper towels, or carbonated beverages. Of every ten people who walk through the entrance, only one will go down the soda aisle, Underhill says. So supermarkets appeal to shoppers’ subconscious to linger in these aisles, often by literally slowing them down with bumpier or tackier floor surfaces. “It’s the reason there are often changes in texture under your feet—if you’re in fourth gear in the parking lot, they would like you to downshift to third or second,” Underhill says. Not too long ago, nutritionists gave a simple rule of thumb to supermarket shoppers: Stick to the perimeter, where the healthier, unprocessed options tend to be. Well, the perimeter rule is dead. (Sorry, Michael Pollan.) “You used to be able to stay on the perimeter of the supermarket, but that’s no longer the case,” nutritionist Akabas says. “The treats have invaded the healthful foods.”
In other words, Akabas says, the supermarkets and food makers figured out that people were obeying the perimeter rule, and started subverting it, infiltrating the once-safe space with foods that they tout as healthy—Power Bars! Granola bars! Breakfast bars!—but are really just candy bars for adults. In this case, the perimeter rule dovetailed nicely with the fact that the outer ring is where shoppers already tend to be the most vulnerable to marketing suggestions. “If you’re shopping at the perimeter of the store, where the fresh, not-shelf-stable stuff is, it activates your senses,” Kelley says. “You’re very impulsive there, not thinking rationally. People there buy what stimulates them.” When you’re trying to determine whether a product is actually healthy for you, try to be aware of what Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink calls the “health-halo effect.”
That’s when people tend to assume that, if one aspect of a food is touted as good for you—say, it’s high in omega-3s—the food must be healthy as a whole, ignoring the fact that it also has 100 grams of sugar, two days’ worth of saturated fats, and enough salt to parch Lake Michigan. So you’ll see cheery, often green-accented packaging, signs, and pop-outs that will try to convince you that what your diet really needs is that low-fat, gluten-free yogurt (that, oh, happens to be packing lots of calories of pure sugar per serving). Supermarkets and food manufacturers try to take advantage of a fundamental fact of why we buy groceries–and it’s not necessarily to get food.
“When people buy products, it’s about personal identity, social-context issues, vanity, how they look in front of friends,” Kelley says. “If your friend are animal-cruelty-conscious Whole Foods customers and you show up to the party with a live lobster, it’s a faux pas.” In other words, when most people shop, it’s not just about fulfilling their weekly quota of calories and nutrients—it’s equally about reconfirming their sense of who they are and what they’re about to themselves and their friends: You’re not buying food, you’re buying an identity. Supermarkets, food manufacturers, and marketers know this, and take advantage of it at every turn, implicitly promising you that, when you buy that pouch of manly beef jerky, or ethically harvested dry-roast coffee, you’re going to feel better about yourself and win esteem from your friends and colleagues. So when you find yourself tempted to buy something you didn’t want when you walked in the store, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: “Am I buying this because I actually need it? Or am I buying this because someone just convinced me that it’ll impress people?”
The list of psychological tricks in a supermarket goes on and on. Do you think it’s a coincidence that that brightly colored, sugar-laden cereal with the tie-in to the new kiddie-cartoon craze is on the shelf at about your mid-thigh? It’s not a great height for an adult to notice it, but it’s in perfect line of sight for a six-year-old kid. Notice how the cheapest, generic boxes and cans tend to be on the lowest shelves? Most people think of themselves as the kind of go-getters who’d be fine with stooping a little rather than essentially paying the market an extra dollar not to have to bend their knees—but decades of research suggest otherwise. You pay more for items that are within easy reach. And the products that hold those prime positions at the ends of the aisles, facing the perimeter? People tend to assume that they’re there because they’re involved with a special promotion. Not so. They’re there to appeal to our laziness. “The end caps are sold to different manufacturers, and the fact that they’re there has nothing to do with being on sale,” Underhill says. “It means that someone has paid for the privilege of being there—the end caps are shortcuts for someone to buy off of so they don’t have to physically walk down the aisle.”
In fact, the placement of everything on every shelf in the store has been meticulously negotiated between the supermarket and the manufacturers, with certain brands willing to pay more because they know that shoppers tend to gravitate toward products at eye level. “Looking down and looking up is where you find your bargains,” Underhill says. You know how there’s that always that old lady giving out free samples of kielbasa on toothpicks at the grocery store? And how guilty you feel about eating one (or two) and then not buying any kielbasa? Well, stop feeling guilty. Because as soon as you ate that little bit of sausage, the little old lady had already accomplished her mission. In fact, she did her job as soon as the savory aroma of spiced pork wafted into your nostrils.
The point of those bite-sized—always bite-sized—portions of food is not to get you to buy a particular product. It’s to trick your body into thinking it’s hungry. “Those people handing out samples are there not to get you to buy what they’re selling, but to get your salivary glands working,” Underhill says. If if you think about it, you’ll notice that the little old ladies handing out samples are always stationed on the perimeter—that supermarket highway everyone travels on—and often near the openings of aisles that might generate more traffic if someone, y’know, gave shoppers just a little nudge. Consider yourself nudged. “If they can tantalize your taste buds but not satisfy your hunger, you become a less disciplined shopper—just by way of smell,” Underhill says.
We’d tell you to be wary of little old ladies bearing gifts, but by the time you run into her, you’ve already been partially brainwashed. Remember what we said about how the bakery, produce section, or floral department are usually toward the front and right of a store as you walk in, beckoning you onto the counterclockwise Yellow Brick Road around the store? “As soon as you step over the threshold of the supermarket, the first thing that happens is you’re assaulted by smells—from the produce, the bakery, or the floral section up front,” Underhill says. “All to get your salivary glands working.” And you know how the veggies and fruit you buy at the store never look as good in your fridge or on your kitchen table?
The lighting in the produce section has been carefully chosen and placed to make everything look as enticing as possible, both to convince you that, yes, this is the week to finally try making something with chayote, and to get your brain thinking that maybe, just maybe, it is feeling a tad peckish, as you begin your stroll toward the consumerist version of Oz. So, now that you know what kind of subliminal trickery you’re up against, how exactly do you walk out of the store with healthy and cost-effective options that won’t eat up your entire day? We’ll lead you through that next time—that is, if you’re hungry for more. ( By Michael Y. Park from Bonappetit.com )