Why Is My Grocery Bill So High?

grocery shopping guide

Have you ever encountered a situation where you initially just wanted to get a carton of eggs and a bottle of milk, but ended up spending hundreds on junk foods and chocolates instead?

Supermarkets find themselves in a very competitive industry, and they work with scientists to gather in-depth market research intelligence and understanding of behavioural science, all in the interest of perfecting the sorcery to lure us into spending more.

Here are a few tricks used by supermarkets to encourage us to spend more, and how we can avoid having that high groceries bill again!

1. Store layout

fresh fruits Do you realise that some supermarket chains like JayaGrocer, Cold Storage, Hero Market and a few others, placed the fresh produce section selling vegetables and fruits right at the entrance?

The idea is to create the impression of fresh and attractive ambiance with bright lights and striking fruit colours, the moment we step into the supermarket. Paired with nice smelling pastries and roasted chicken stimulating our olfactory senses, we become hungrier and shop for more groceries.

Going further into the supermarkets, you may notice that  their layout is akin to a circuit board, to indirectly make us browse through as many aisle as possible before the checkout line.

Narrow aisle lanes are intended to slow down traffic, while slow and soothing theme music (or annoying festive songs to irritate us thus promoting impulsive purchasing) and smaller floor tiles make us feel that we are moving too fast, making us slow down subconsciously.

Hoping that we’ll put more stuff into the trolley other than what we intended to buy initially, seems like they’re quite successful in doing so.

How to avoid the trap: Prepare a shopping list before you walk into the store — and the most important of all — stick to it!

2. Big shopping carts

shopping trolleySupermarkets and hypermarkets provide big shopping carts and baskets to encourage us to fill them up and hopefully, buying more than we intended to buy initially.

Possibly due to human evolution, we have been genetically ingrained to hoard as much food as possible for survival. This could be why we subconsciously fill up those large carts with more food than we possibly need.

How to avoid the trap: If you are planning to only buy one or two things, don’t get a cart or a basket. As your arms could only carry a few things, you will be forced to pay and leave. Or, you can get a basket, as you will need to lug a heavy basket around as you fill it up. That will stop you from buying too much.

3. Product placement

Every item you see on the shelf in the supermarket is placed strategically. Product suppliers actually pay “slotting fees” to place their products at the most visible location.

For instance, studies shown that most people have the tendency to look to the right, hence, suppliers would want to shelf their products on the right side of the shelf. Supermarkets would shelf their highest profit-making products at places that they know we are most likely to see them.

Product suppliers also strive to place their products on the customers’ eye level, while children cereals and other kid-oriented products are strategically placed at the lower level of the shelves.

Supermarkets also usually shelf complementary items together like potato chips and salsa next to each other, to make us feel that it is incomplete to buy one without the other.

Supermarkets would go as far as intentionally stocking less promotional or new products, leaving us no choice but to buy near-to-expiry products at a higher price.

How to avoid the trap: Do your research online to check out latest promotions and decide before you drop by the store. For health conscious shoppers, study the back of the packaging and compare the ingredients and nutrients listed in that product. Don’t fall for the marketing gimmick.

4. Pricing mind games

Two for the price of one? 30% off the second piece? Bigger packaging seems more worth the money compared to the smaller packaging of the same product?  Or have you noticed that most of the products are priced at RM9.90, RM19.90 and RM39.90?

We are actually bad (or lazy) with numbers and supermarkets and hypermarkets know that.

Let’s do a hypothetical calculation. 100 grams of packaged chilli padi cost RM2.40, while unpacked chilli padi cost RM19.00/kg. If we do the math, the latter is cheaper as 100 grams of unpacked chilli padi only cost RM1.90. But surprisingly, most of us would actually get the RM2.40 packaged chilli padi instead because RM19.00 is a higher price compared to RM2.40.

Have you bought a large loaf of bread thinking it would be more value for money than smaller-sized loaf, but ended up not finishing and throwing half of a mouldy loaf of bread? While getting a larger loaf might be more value money if you count per slice of bread, but it might cost more if you’re unable to finish it. Opportunity cost is something we always forget to take into account when shopping for groceries.

Beware of price anchoring

At a conscious level, we know that RM39.99 rounds up to RM40. But study suggests that our brains are not as rational as we thought. Our brains read from left to right and register the first digit first, and disregard the rest. In this case, subconsciously we think that RM39.90 looks like it is still in the RM30 range instead of RM40.

It also makes counting more mentally straining. To illustrate, we can immediately calculate three cans of carbonated drinks at RM2.00 per can, which adds up to RM6.00 in total. However, how much do you have to pay for three cans of drinks at RM1.90 per can? It just takes longer to calculate the latter mentally, and supermarkets are hoping that we’ll ditch the maths and do impulsive purchasing instead.

How price anchoring works

Supermarkets are well aware of this concept known as price anchoring, and have been using this pricing strategy for years to manipulate us to spend more. Not just supermarkets, but banks have also been using the same tactic to earn some money from us. How many of us have used a credit card to get 10% cash back on groceries, but failed to make prompt payment and ended up being charged 18% interest? How about spending an extra RM20 to reach the RM100 bill mark to get free parking that only cost RM5?

The same mentality applies when taking up a home loan. We tend to extend our loan tenure for a lower interest rate, but didn’t realize we ended up paying more in interest.

Simply put, we’re not as rational and logical as we thought when it comes to math.

How to avoid the trap: Kudos to those who actually takes out a calculator and do the math while shopping. This trap is actually quite challenging to tackle, and our best bet to beat it is to train our minds to mentally calculate.

5. Free samples

Giving free samples is an innocent way to provide product awareness to consumers, or is it? Is there an ulterior motive behind it?

Free samples are believed to stimulate our appetite and make us hungry, thus making us buy things that we did not intend to buy in the first place.

How to avoid the trap: Do your grocery shopping with a full stomach, and stick to your groceries list.

6. Loyalty cards

What better way to reward us loyal customers with a loyalty programmes, by giving us extra discounts and privileges for the money spent.

If you have one of those loyalty cards, you have just given away your private, intimate personal information for free.

Data mining is a big thing today, and supermarkets use your personal information to build a demographic profile of you, learning your buying and spending habits, and finding how loyal are you to them to create highly targeted and personalized ads for you.

Your information is also used to complement the points above, like store layout design, product placement and pricing strategy to make you spend as much money as possible in their supermarkets.

How to avoid the trap: Unfortunately, there’s no escaping this. Even if you opt to forego the benefits of a loyalty card to keep your anonymity, supermarkets are still able to get our personal information through credit and debit cards. If you used cash, supermarkets can train their cashiers in building relationship with you and thus learning your consumption pattern and giving you targeted coupon discounts personally at the checkout counter.

Due to the competitive nature of the industry, supermarkets have gone to extreme length to boost their sales. The point is to drive us make unplanned impulsive purchases on unnecessary things, and our only defense is to build strong awareness and discipline while shopping.

This article has been updated on July 1, 2024.

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