Who’s pushing your trolley?

After some rather intense travel over the last few weeks, it has been a relief to settle down for a while and cook for ourselves again.

Combining what we’ve learned from two fantastic books, Feed Yourself for $35 a Week and The $21 Challenge, back at home in Australia, I think we’ve got grocery shopping down to a fine art – our weekly shop regularly coming in at around this mark. But I was nervous as to how we would fare here in the UK.

How do we make shopping decisions?

‘Consumers really don’t know what anything should cost… They wander the supermarket aisle in a half-conscious daze, judging prices from cues, helpful and otherwise’ reveals William Poundstone’s excellent book Priceless: The hidden psychology of value.

In a presentation on store design, Assistant Professor Sagar Gadekar summarises the first objective as ‘to guide the customer around the store and entice and increase purchase’. Note that it is not to provide a logical, efficient shopping experience.

We may think we’re in charge of our shopping carts – where they go and what we put in them – but from the floor plan to the shelving, the physical layout of a supermarket uses space, language, imagery, and prices in highly sophisticated ways to influence – and almost control – our shopping choices.

Imagine you have three choices of chocolate:

  • At or slightly above your eye level is Premium Milk Chocolate, in a box wrapped with a gold ribbon: $8.99.
  • At eye level is Choco-Bar, in a brightly coloured bag: $4.99.
  • On the bottom of the shelf, just above the floor level, is Budget Chocolate, in a plain white bag with black letters and no pictures: $1.42.

Which is the most appealing?

Chances are, you drew on a number of spatial, linguistic, visual, and economic cues to make your selection. Where the bag is positioned would (in a real-life scenario) likely cause you to spend more time looking at Choco-Bar. The names also make the chocolate choices seem more or less appealing – ‘premium’ sounding much nicer than ‘budget’, for example. The packaging would come into consideration not only when selecting a box of chocolates as a gift, but when considering which bag of chocolates is less likely to embarrass us or our offspring when serving them at home, which bag will make us feel as if we’re having an indulgent treat when we’re sitting on the couch watching TV. And of course, the price gives us an important clue – $8.99 might sound too steep, but we might also be suspect of the quality of a bulk bag of chocolate for $1.42.

A beer by any other name…

According to Jenny at Money Saving Expert, products are labelled ‘premium’, ‘finest’ or ‘extra-special’ to give the impression that they are a treat. When words like ‘value’, ‘basic’ or ‘savers’ are used – words that should have positive connotations but are often associated with being cheap or of low quality – combined with monochromatic and plain package designs, the presentation is deliberately stark and unappealing, implying bare-bones quality.

These labels are often used in Goldilocks pricing schemes, like that presented above, where three different versions of a product (high-, middle- and low-end) are used to corner different parts of the market. Just as in the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it is intended that the average customer will find one too hot (to expensive) one too cold (too cheap), and one just right.

An experiment by Huber and Puto cited in Priceless demonstrates how offering a third choice can almost completely steer our choices towards or away from a specific product.

Three groups of students were each offered a different selection of beers:

Goldilocks pricing of beer
Goldilocks pricing of beer

When given just two choices, two thirds of participants opted for the Premium Beer. But when a third option (the Super Cheap beer), that no participant selected, was presented in Group 2, the students’ likelihood of selecting the Premium Beer dropped to just over half. The presence of the Super Cheap beer seemed to make the Bargain Beer more palatable by comparison. Very few people want to be seen as buying the ‘cheapest’ or ‘worst’ item on offer. This fact is reinforced by the results of the third group, where instead of a Super Cheap beer, the students were offered a Super Premium beer as their third choice. In this scenario, no participant selected the Bargain Beer – in spite of the fact that in the other two groups, one third to almost half of the students found the same beer worthy of selection.

Rather than the characteristics of the Bargain Beer itself (its price and taste rating were the same in all three cases), it was the position of the Bargain Beer in relation to the other beers that made the difference. In Group 3, the Bargain Beer was perceived as the ‘worst’, even though in Group 2, it was ‘mid-range’, a step above the Super Cheap beer, and next to the top.

Remember: the Bargain Beer tastes the same regardless of what it’s next to on the shelf.

Shopping strategies

Before going out for the day I read a bit online about the cheapest supermarkets in the UK, checked where the best ranking, nearest supermarket was (which in our locale happened to be a Lidl) and set off.

We walked once around the supermarket comparing prices (chicken breasts, for example, are about a third the price if you buy them frozen), before putting anything in our basket.

Most of the strategies that work for us in Australia work here:

  • Don’t be Pacman. The design of most supermarkets relies on us walking up and down every aisle like Pacman, gobbling up whatever brightly coloured packages they set before us. If this is how you normally shop – walking every aisle to jog your memory about what you need – try shopping with a list and visiting only those aisles that stock your requirements.
  • Go in reverse. Supermarket floorplans are carefully engineered to goad you into walking around in a specific way – this is achieved through the positioning of the entrance and the strategic placement of consumer staples like bread and milk at key points around the shop. In many cases, the intended route will have you walking around the supermarket in a counter-clockwise direction, so that most (right-handed) customers will steer the trolley with their left hand and grab things impulsively with their right. Try the reverse.
  • Concentrate on the walls of the supermarket, not the central aisle. Many supermarkets are designed to have the brightly packaged, attractive, easy, sweet and salty products such as chips, soft drink, chocolates and other packaged foods that are bad for your health and for your pocket front and foremost, at centre-stage. This layout seems to be pretty universal – breads, meats/dairy  and vegetables/fruit are placed on the periphery of the shop, in an attempt to get you to walk past as many tempting goods as possible. Rather than walking up and down each aisle, try walking in a U-shape. Avoiding the central aisles (excepting for toiletries and cleaning products) is better for your wallet and your waistline.
  • Look for special stickers. So long as it looks, smells, and feels fine, buying food close to its expiry date can be a great way to save on produce. Just make sure to either cook and eat it that day, or to freeze it as soon as you get home. Find out what colour the supermarket you’re at uses for its stickers (yellow? red? orange?), and keep your eyes tuned to it!
  • Familiarise yourself with the reduced zones. Some supermarkets have particular areas that they shelve reduced items in. I don’t mean the ‘loss leaders’ like 2 for 1 packs of Doritos or drastically reduced TimTams that shops display on the end of their aisle – these products are almost always unnecessary discretionary items. By all means, if you’d usually buy a pack of chocolate biscuits, do stock up when you see a good deal – we once bought 12 packs of TimTams when they were on special for $1 each, saving around $24 – but this was only a saving because we consumed them at the normal rate, and didn’t buy other biscuits in the following weeks. If we’d gone home to a TimTam eating frenzy, it wouldn’t have been a saving but an assault on our digestive systems and on our wallets. Try to find the areas (if any) in your meat, dairy, and vegetable sections that house the reduced goods – sometimes marked by a coloured strip.
  • Make your own combos. Speaking of loss leaders, don’t automatically assume that because something is on the end of the aisle it’s the cheapest you’ll find. The 2 for 1 offer on Doritos may well be the cheapest corn chip in store, but don’t automatically pick up your salsa from the same shelf – another brand may be on special in the snack aisle.
  • Figure out when is the best time to shop. At my local supermarket, this happened to be around 9pm, or on a Sunday afternoon before new stock came in on a Monday. If you’re in the UK, here’s a handy guide.
  • Try home brands. The supermarket’s own brand can often be cheaper than more famous names, and is often as good, and sometimes better, in quality and flavour. In some cases, the no-brand and branded goods are even manufactured at the same place. Supermarkets often place these down low, giving prime real estate to the more expensive brands. So keep your eyes down low! And by the way, do you know who buys home brands most frequently? According to statistics cited in The Complete Tightwad Gazzette, higher income earners are more likely to buy store brands than either middle or lower income earners.
  • Compare unit prices. Most supermarkets now provide the cost per gram/kilo or per litre in small font underneath the price, making for easier comparisons among products in the same category. Home brands are not always the cheapest, especially when the brand-names are on special, and big packets do not always offer bulk discounts (although they often do). In Fiji, for example, we noticed that in some cases, it was cheaper to buy two smaller packets of Twisties than to buy one large one – with the added advantage of encouraging you to eat smaller portions of junk food, and keeping the excess fresher for longer.
  • Compare the fridges, freezers and meat counter.  Sometimes the same meat or cheese can be considerably cheaper when purchased frozen rather than chilled, or vice versa, and there are no hard and fast rules about which way is best.
  • Beware of deceptive lighting. Examine your meat outside of the meat refrigerator lighting, which may be designed to make the meat look more red and fresh. If possible, buy your fruit and veg at an open-air market – not only will you often find lower prices, but you can examine the produce in daylight.
  • Don’t shop when you’re hungry. Whenever I’ve done this, I invariably buy unhealthy convenience foods as the thought of having something immediately is too tempting. If you’re really hungry, buy a carrot to snack on before you do the main shop. If you’re not hungry enough to eat a carrot, you’re not really hungry!
  • Use discounts wisely. In some locations, you can make considerable savings using points systems, loyalty cards, or coupons. None of these particularly apply to Australia, or to my style of shopping, so I have limited experience with them, but ensure that you aren’t unwittingly selling your personal information for a few cents off a can of beans, or buying things you don’t need for points you likely won’t redeem. Be aware that most of these discounts are on junk food – points are rarely awarded for buying cabbages or kale!
  • Ignore the junk at the register. Pretty much every supermarket I’ve ever set foot in has lollies – gum, chocolates, softdrink, trashy magazines, and brightly coloured sweets designed to appeal to kids (although some now offer a junk-free queue for parents) – at the checkout. These ‘impulse buys’ are tactically located at the most boring part of the supermarket – to look at while you’re waiting in line – and where you have limited time to change your mind before they’re rung up on the till. I can almost guarantee you that if it is located at the cash register you don’t need it
  • Bring your own bags. Not only is it better for the environment, but you can save money. Plastic bags cost 5p each here (almost 10c), so buying a few each shop can easily add up.
  • Use online shopping with caution. In addition to delivery charges, supermarkets often mark up the cost of individual products online. I use online shopping as a way to plan my shop, and am usually pleasantly surprised when I get there, as the total comes in even lower thanks to the online markup, and added discounts you can find in store. If you have a strict budget, I highly recommend this as a way to avoid unpleasant surprises at the checkout.
  • Have a meal plan. When we first started meal planning, we wrote our plan up before going to the shop, checked what we had in the cupboard and fridge/freezer, and compiled a shopping list based on what we didn’t have on hand. Try to be flexible – for example, if you’re planning on making a chicken risotto, but tuna or other canned fish would work equally well, write chicken/tuna/other on your list. If chicken happens to be on special this week, stock up. If not, grab a can of tuna instead and have chicken another week. As we got more used to meal planning, we began buying what was on special at the markets or supermarket according to price and preference, then formulating a menu afterwards. Once you have a feel for how much of each category (e.g. starchy vegetables, greens, red meats, etc.) you need (The Perfect Health Diet book is excellent for this), it’s easy to be flexible. Another strategy is to look at what you have already, and base your meal plan on this, buying only what is necessary.

Using a mixture of some of these strategies, our shop for the week came out to 10 pounds, 52 pence – or around $17.02 AUD – surprisingly less than the $21 challenge or the $35 menu.

Does it cost more to eat well?

There’s a perception that it costs a lot to eat well, and that it’s much cheaper to buy junk foods.

I disagree.

So what did our just over 10 pounds get us?


We got 2 kipper fillets, a small bag of potatoes, a bag of capsicums, 1 kg of onions, 1 kg of mixed frozen vegetables, 1kg of chicken breast, 1kg of button sprouts, 2 fruit yoghurts, cheese, 1kg of rice, a tin of tomatoes, and a bottle of lemonade (remove the lemonade – as I probably should have – and the total is less than 10 pounds for 2 adults for a week).

Admittedly, this total does not include breakfasts, as we already have cereal and milk, but these could easily be added within a 15 pound budget.

How does this compare to junk food?

Had we bought the cheapest ready meals on offer, at 1 pound 50p each, the total would have been 42 pounds for lunches and dinners.

Had we bought the cheapest burger at McDonalds at 99p, with some fries at 1 pound 39 (a total of 2 pound 38) the total would have been almost 67 pounds.

To my mind, the evidence that you can eat better – and cheaper – cooking your own food than on buying takeaway is pretty clear.


The next time you’re at the supermarket, consider who is pushing your trolley, and what you put in it. Are you in control, or are you being steered by the environment – the signs, sights, and smells around you?

Find out more about cheap grocery shopping and supermarket tricks.
What are your favourite grocery shopping tips? Share them below!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

12 thoughts on “Who’s pushing your trolley?

  1. When I moved from working on ‘pay up front’ games to ‘free to play’ (or ‘freemium’) I read up on the strategies companies use to get people to pay out, without turning them off, and goodness there were a lot of well-researched tricks out there. There’s no way the big supermarkets aren’t putting in a heck of a lot of work in to controlling your shopping experience, and putting in an equal amount of work in to making sure you don’t notice (with varying success!).

    1. Thanks for your comment Simon, and great point – our ‘trolley’ (grocery or otherwise) can easily be steered online as well as in person. ?? It disappoints me that there are so many resources out there for companies to manipulate shoppers, but very little interest in helping shoppers be aware of these strategies (for obvious economic reasons!)

  2. From a previous job that saw me firmly through my undergrad days, I know that another tactic used to trick customers is the way that produce is stacked.
    Other than regular supermarket shelves where things tend to be stacked neatly for ease of access and compact storage of many items, a pile of produce on a stand-alone table, etc. is often stacked in a jumbled way on purpose. This is partly because many customers subconsiously don’t want to take items from a large neat stack because it feels like messing it up, but also because stacking items in a pile at different, haphazard angles makes it seem like many items bave been taken already (implying a popular, fast-selling item), and gives it a ‘bargain bin’ feel, regardless of actual price, especially when placed on a table with sides to it (i.e.: an actual ‘bin’ of sorts), or at floor level (just to mess with those of us used to checking there to avoid being tricked). Ultimately it’s all a trick to be wary of, hey? ^^;

    1. Wow Anna! That’s something I wasn’t aware of.
      When we were in Fiji ? earlier this year, I noticed how neat the shelves were in comparison to those I’m used to at supermarkets in Australia. In one store, I saw a worker actually washing and drying soy sauce bottles and restacking them ? Impressive! And you’re right… it actually made me not want to take stuff from those shelves (at least without moving the cans etc. at the back to neaten it out again). Not that I think this was actually the intention of that specific shop – I think it’s more of a sense of shop pride there.
      Now that you make this point, I think pretty much every sales table of shoes or whatever I have seen has been a jumbled mess. And I always assumed this was because a pack of shoe-hungry people had already pawed through it… but I now see that was probably a trick too!! ?
      Excellent info, thanks for sharing!

  3. Have you seen the documentary on costco (I think it might be on youtube) where they explain how costco is raking in the cash almost totally with the psychology of shopping – using lots of the tactics you explain here. Being aware of HOW you are being sold to can really make a difference in your spending. At least it does for me. Thanks for linking up at Share the Wealth Sunday 🙂

    1. Thanks Carly, that sounds fascinating – I’ll have to look it up. Costco is a relative newcomer for us, so it’s not as much on my radar, but I have seen some interesting programs on them before. ??
      Thanks for the great link party! ??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.