Want to save thousands of dollars each year at the grocery store? You’re going to have to beat the system and master some biological instincts while you’re at it.
Grocery stores use a number of manipulation tactics designed to get you to spend more and stay longer than expected. If you want to keep your money in your pocket, then your best bet is to understand the tactics they use and take advantage of the system with your knowledge.
Why Coupons Rarely Save you Money
We all admire the folks we see on TV shows, like Extreme Couponers, who go to the supermarket and check out with a cart full of items valued at $600 for under $20. While we may see the final result of their efforts in the checkout lane, what we don’t see is the 15 or more hours that is spent cutting, sorting, organizing and planning each week.
Lisa, from Extreme Couponing Season 3, Episode 6 is a perfect example. What she does is remarkable — she saves massive amounts of money each week and feeds her family on very little. She also openly admits that her coupon philosophy has completely taken over her life and her time.
Furthermore, shoppers who use coupons are more relaxed and happier than shoppers who don’t use coupons, according to a 2012 study by Claremont Graduate University. It’s not just a little happiness boost. Shopping with coupons raises your oxytocin levels more than kissing, cuddling and other social interactions.
Why does this matter? Happy and relaxed shoppers stay in the store longer and spend more on average than unhappy shoppers. It’s a coupon high and it becomes a buying frenzy. The happier you are and the longer you stay, the more you end up putting in your cart.
What you can do:
If you want to save money, skip the artificial oxytocin boost and the coupons. Your checking account will thank you and you will have a lot more free time. You can even use that extra time to generate significant side income.
Finally, don’t forget that you can opt to use credit cards for some cash back without needing to bother with clipping coupons.
Milk is the Real Problem
It happens to most of us, without us even noticing. We stop in the grocery store to pick up milk and bread and come out with a whole lot more. Supermarkets place essential staples like milk near the back of the store deliberately, forcing you to pass through what amounts to a sensory gauntlet – and all of it is designed to lighten your wallet.
For example, the bakery is usually placed near the front of the store because the tempting smells of fresh baked bread and cookies greet you when you walk in. This can make you hungrier than you were and prompt you to buy more than you planned.
What you can do:
During your next trip for just need milk and bread, consider stopping at the gas station instead. You might pay slightly more for the individual items but you’re more likely to come out with only what you really need, a bottom-line savings that’s hard to ignore.
Savings isn’t Easy
Have you ever noticed that the cheapest items are usually on the bottom shelf? Companies shell out millions each year to ensure their products get placed at eye-level within your grocery store.
Product placement is big business because most of us rarely look up or down as we shop. Out of sight really is out of mind and the best deals are usually hidden well below eye level. That package of Oreos you have your eye on as you shop costs around $3. If you take a peek a little lower down however, the Voortman wafers on the bottom shelf will only set you back $1.
What you can do:
Get ready to bend, stretch and move as you shop. Make a habit of not being too hasty in reaching for what is right in front of you. In addition to checking the bottom shelf, look at top of the shelves and near the end of each aisle before considering the products placed right at eye-level.
Don’t Spend Unnecessarily
When it’s time to buy fruits and veggies, avoid the large bags of apples, onions and all forms of pre-packaged produce. It’s not only better for your health, it’s better for your wallet.
Those big bags of apples may look like a great deal but chances are you’re going to end up throwing away almost half of the bag because of another widely-used manipulation tactic. Fresh ripe fruits and veggies are typically packaged together with older produce most of us would pass on.
If you’ve ever opened up a bag of apples and found that nearly half of them had deep bruises, cuts and other problems, you’ve experienced this sales tactic. Grapes, oranges, potatoes, onions, celery and carrots are all packaged this way.
What you can do:
To maximize your savings choose only fruits and vegetables that you select individually and weigh. Then buy only the amount you need. You may pay slightly more per item but you will realize the savings when you aren’t dumping half of your produce into the garbage later that week.
Don’t get Fooled by Deals
You will see everything from Tide to Entenmann’s doughnuts on your store’s aisle ends. This is because Procter & Gamble, General Mills and other manufacturers know that end-aisle displays offer the most exposure and make it more likely that their products will eventually end up in your cart.
Even if you skip the aisles you don’t need when you shop, you still have to walk right past these displays. Retailers maximize this opportunity by combining their end-aisle placements with sale prices — a one-two punch that makes impulse buying much more likely and takes your hard earned cash right out of your pocket.
What you can do:
The next time you’re tempted to buy something you don’t need off an end-aisle display, remember the tactics behind the location and don’t give in to the manipulation. You’ll find the best deals in the regular aisles near the bottom and top of the shelves.
Shop Smart, Save Smart
The next time you shop, remember that even the layout of the store is designed to maximize profit — their profit, not yours. Every item from the entrance to the checkout lane represents an opportunity for you to make purchasing decisions. When you go shopping make sure you take an extra moment to consider the invisible factors that may be prompting you to purchase things you don’t really need.
Now that you know some of the most common tactics used by your grocery store you can overcome them and and walk away from temptation. Do this long enough and you’ll see your grocery store expenses drop considerably — potentially amounting to thousands of dollars that will find a better home in a savings account. You’ll eat just as well without all the manipulation, we promise.
Brooke is an expert in consumer spending and the psychology of money. She has contributed to major outlets, including Investopedia, Wise Bread, and US News & World Report.