Supermarket Tactics to Get You to Buy

by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.

Ten Ways Your Local Grocery Store Hijacks Your Brain

Be a Savvy Consumer & Avoid Retail Traps
Published on March 14, 2012 by Melanie A. Greenberg, Ph.D. in The Mindful Self-Express


Products, like people, have personalities, and they can make or break them in the market place.” David Ogilvy


 Images of Freshness Surround You

What’s in a brand name? Well, it turns out, a whole heck of a lot. Did you know that people rate the identical beverage as tastier when it’s in a “Coke” can than in a “Pepsi” can?  This, and other juicy “behind the scenes” tidbits of information, are now being revealed to the public in books appropriately titled “Buyology” or marketing guru Martin Lindstrom’s latest bestseller “Brandwashed.”Below are 10 great examples of how consumers get baffled by branding into parting with their hard-earned

t(1) Fooled by Fresh Flowers

Do you notice that upscale supermarkets, such as Whole Foods, place fresh flowers right next to the store entrances. This creates an image of “fresh from the farm” delectability that sets the tone for the consumer’s shopping experience. Would the shopping experience start on such a good note if cans of Spam, dog food, toilet cleaner, and dusty old light bulbs were the first things you saw? Hmmmm…

(2) Crazed by Counterfeit Crates  

Notice those stacked cardboard boxes filled with fresh apples and oranges? Well, if you look closer, it turns out that in Whole Foods, all those boxes are actually part of one giant box with partitions.  This is deliberately done to create the image of workers piling the crates of freshly picked fruit on top of one another. However, according to Lindstrom, store bought apples can be as much as 14 months old. Eeek!

bananas at whole foods


(3) Baffled by Bananas

Surely, the bananas are just bananas, right? Uh… no! Lindstrom writes in a 2011 Fast Company blog post:

Dole and other banana growers have turned the creation of a banana into a science, in part to manipulate perceptions of freshness. In fact, they’ve issued a banana guide to greengrocers, illustrating the various color stages a banana can attain during its life cycle. Each color represents the sales potential for the banana in question. For example, sales records show that bananas with Pantone color 13-0858 (otherwise known as Vibrant Yellow) are less likely to sell than bananas with Pantone color 12-0752 (also called Buttercup), which is one grade warmer, visually, and seems to imply a riper, fresher fruit. Companies like Dole have analyzed the sales effects of all varieties of color and, as a result, plant their crops under conditions most ideal to creating the right ‘color.’

(4) Muddled by Missing Milk

As you search for the milk and eggs that most people make a quick stop for, did you notice they are at the back of the store. This, also, is no accident. Having to walk down the aisles to get to your basics makes it more likely you’ll pick up some delectable, yet expensive impulse buy, placed precisely at eye level, along the way.

(5) Exasperated by Expiration Dates 

Speaking of the milk and eggs, did you notice that the milk has expiration dates, as do some bottled waters and many other purchases, such as, perhaps, cola, or toothpaste. Bet you think that some official governmentbody is looking after your interests by ensuring optimal freshness. Wrong! . Actually, some of these products don’t actually expire, or expire long after the date noted. If the milk in your fridge isn’t all rancid and lumpy and smells fresh, it’s probably fine to drink. Stores often add these dates to have you throw out the products and replace them more often, leading to more sales & predictable time periods for re-ordering.

(6) Dedazzled by Bottled Waters

Now, about those bottled waters… did you know that in most areas, tap water is perfectly safe to drink. In fact, some bottled waters actually are tap water, with filtering or some other ingredients to make them taste a bit better. Others are gathered from the same reservoirs that your tap water comes from. There is no protective regulation ensuring bottled water has to come from some melted arctic glacier, despite the blue labels and glacial pictures. In some cases, bottled waters, such as Dasani, can actually be dehydrating, rather than thirst-quenching, due to the high salt content. Now that stinks!

shopping cart with fruit

(7) Oggling Oodles of Organics

Moving right along, how about those green products we pay the extra bucks for? A few years ago, brands, such as Method hand soaps, were making a killing, but now the regular brands have gottenwise and are rolling out organic and green versions. You will see some spurious advertising, such as, “Now much greener, we use 20% less plastic in our bottles;” that should remove the guilt at buying a product destined for the landfill, huh? The term “organic” is also sometimes used when it shouldn’t be, such as the case of the farm with fat, happy chickens grazing the land; only they bought the stuff they sold to the stores for top dollar from the overcrowded, dark chicken coop down the road. Of course, not all organic products represent fraudulent advertising, and, if you care about how animals are treated, terms such as “grass-fed” or “free-range” can denote more humane practices, resulting in healthier, tastier food.

(8) Exasperated by Faux Environmentalists

Actually the green washing and cleaning products are better for the environment, but here consumers are the shady ones. Research shows many people buy the “greener” products, not to save the environment, but to keep up with the bicycling, composting Prius owners next door (I do live in Marin county, California, you know!). There seems to be status in showing how altruistic you are, especially if you pay a higher price to help the environment—a phenomenon known as “competitive altruism.” Some lab research shows if the buying decision is kept completely private or the price is the same, people make less “green” choices. This is probably due to the status aspect. “Well, bring on the social pressure,” is my motto!

(9) Tracked by Techno-Geeks

Finally, marketers are getting all the more surreptitious and Machiavellian (in some opinions) in how they collect data on us unwitting consumers. Google just recently changed their privacy practices to make “opting in” to being tracked the default option, so that Adwords can pop up the words most likely to generate clicks. Same with those supermarket cards tracking every purchase. No wonder they offer such big card-only discounts.

(10) Nailed by Neuromarketers

The new (and “hot”) science of neuro-marketing, uses fancy brain-scanning technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at what brain areas light up at different stages of the purchasing process. In one study, experimenters could predict buying choices, 7 seconds before consumers knew what they were going to buy. As Velma from Scooby Doo once said, “Jinkies!”

While these examples provide a source of anecdote and amusement, they really do give new meaning to the Latin phrase “Caveat Emptor,” or “Let the Buyer Beware.” So, next time you’re at the grocery store, skirt the perimeter, look on the top shelves, bring a list, and don’t get too seduced by the pastoral green fields on the food labels. If you want ‘fresh from the farm,” visit your local Farmer’s Market instead.

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