Extension and Ag Research News


Prairie Fare: How to unravel the secrets of supermarket psychology

Retailers understand our shopping behavior better than we do.

“I went to buy two containers of raspberries for $4 and came out with $150 of groceries,” my friend said.

“I went in to buy two things and came out with a similar grocery bill,” I responded.

I was not proud of myself for buying more than I planned. I took care of shopping for a while, though.

Supermarkets often use psychology to get us to buy things. Retailers understand our shopping behavior better than we do.

“Loss leaders” are bargains that appeal to our thriftiness. Since we saved money on raspberries or some other item, we might loosen our wallet to buy other items.

Many grocery stores have large carts. Some studies have shown that the larger the cart, the more we buy. If you just have a couple things to buy, you may want to pick up a basket, if available.

Have you noticed that many supermarkets greet you with beautiful items, such as fresh flowers and plants? I often stop to admire them.

I know that I am being “primed” to buy more.

In a couple of the stores where I shop, the vibrant colors of fresh produce greet me a short stroll from the floral display. Being tempted to buy more fruits and vegetables is not a bad idea.

About 90% of adults do not meet the 4 ½ to 5-cup per day recommendation. However, fresh produce may cost more than other forms such as canned, frozen and dried.

We might get more food with similar nutritional value if we do some comparison shopping and check out the frozen, canned and packaged food aisles. Frozen vegetables and fruits without added salt, sweeteners and sauces often are nutritional bargains.

The placement of items within the store affects what we buy. People often pause and check out the end caps to tap into our tendency to buy on impulse.

The end caps might feature cookies and snacks marked with special prices. In many cases, we will pay the same price per item whether we buy one package or five. Read the fine print, though. You might actually pay less if you buy five. Be sure you really need five items.

Check out the cereal aisle. Those smiling beckoning cartoon characters on some boxes are placed so they are eye-level to children, at about 2 feet from the floor. The characters might even have their eyes looking downward to bring out the “pester power” of our youngest consumers.

The colors used on packaging may affect our buying decisions. Did you know that packages with red coloring capture our attention, while yellow colors tend to energize us? I might think I will have more energy if I buy food in a bright yellow package. Look beyond the colors and compare the prices and nutritional value.

If we need to pick up some milk and eggs, we might be driving our big cart to the back of the store. Merchants want us to peruse the grocery store for a fair amount of time.

Some stores offer free samples. That tiny taste of a dip with a cracker or mashed potatoes and gravy might lead us to add an extra container or two of food to our cart.

Do you check the unit price (price per ounce) labeled on the shelves? Often, larger packages have a lower unit price. Ask yourself if you will eat all the food or get tired of it.

When we reach the cashier, all sorts of items ranging from candy, gum, chips and soda to nail clippers, pens and small toys tempt us. Look away from those tempters and check your phone messages.

These are few ideas from our “Now You’re Cookin’” series of handouts at www.ag.ndsu.edu/food (under Food Preparation).

  • Use store ads for menu ideas. Aim for a wide variety of foods from the MyPlate food groups and then write down menus for a week.
  • Save your list of menu ideas and include the shopping list with the menus. You may want to recycle your menu ideas in a few weeks.
  • Keep your list on your refrigerator so family members can add to the list during the week. Keep staple items, such as milk, eggs, bread and juice, on the list each week, and add needed items to the list.
  • Arrange your list based on the layout with subheadings, such as “fresh produce,” “canned goods,” “meats” and “breads.”
  • Before you go to the store, have a snack. Otherwise, it is tempting to add many more items to your shopping cart.
  • When possible, shop alone and during the store’s off-hours, such as early in the morning or late in the evening.

Here’s a five-ingredient meal to serve with a tossed salad and fresh fruit. Check out the sales ad because some of these items may be on sale.

Quick and Easy Pasta Bake

1 pound extra lean ground beef, browned
2 cups cooked pasta of choice
1 15-ounce jar spaghetti sauce
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Brown ground beef. Cook pasta according to package directions. (Note: pasta usually doubles in volume when cooked.) Mix together browned ground beef, pasta, spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese, top with mozzarella cheese and place in a greased or sprayed 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Cover the pan with foil. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches at least 165 F.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 400 calories, 16 grams (g) fat, 38 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber and 740 milligrams sodium.  (To reduce sodium, use less Parmesan cheese.)

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Feb. 15, 2024

Source: Julie Garden-Robinson, 701-231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu

Editor: Elizabeth Cronin, 701-231-7881, elizabeth.cronin@ndsu.edu


Creative Commons License
Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Creative Commons license and our Rules for Use. Thanks.