15 Secrets Grocery Stores Really Don’t Want You to Know

You might not even realize they’re doing these things, either.
Last updated April 3, 2023 | By Cat Lafuente Edited By Michael Kurko
woman with shopping between store shelf

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Have you ever noticed that some grocery stores go out of their way to make you enjoy the shopping experience?

That’s evident in mottos such as the one for Publix: “Where shopping is a pleasure.” Not surprisingly, that can make you want to spend more time strolling the aisles.

While that’s no secret, there are a host of things that grocery stores do to make it hard to hold on to your hard-earned cash.

They play music to influence your mood

insta_photos/Adobe model wearing hoodie and headphones

Grocery stores want you to enjoy familiar tunes while you shop, such as hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Playing these songs does double duty in putting you at ease while you gently bop to the beat.

Speaking of the beat, it’s likely just a touch slower than your heartbeat to chill you out and keep you in the store longer.

The layout of items is strategic

Sundry Photography/Adobe large Whole Foods store

If you’re running into the grocery store to pick up bread and milk, you’ll notice that those items are all the way in the back. That means you have to pass everything else on the way there, potentially stuff you’ll buy.

Additionally, you’ll find staples in the outer ring of the store, giving you a look at all of the other aisles as you move around them.

They change where they keep certain items

phpetrunina14/Adobe woman with shopping between store shelf

Just when you get to know where your grocery store keeps everything, surprise: The cereal is now on the other side of the store where the pet food used to be.

Now you have to go down more aisles to find what you need and spend more time shopping to boot.

Grocery stores make these changes so you’ll do exactly that, hoping you'll pick up more items in the process.

They curate those items by the register

Syda Productions/Adobe couple buying food at grocery store cash register

It’s no accident that you can grab an individual cold soda or a pack of gum in the checkout area. Those items are designed to appeal to your impulses and are super convenient to throw in your cart.

And yes, they put all of that candy there so your child will inevitably ask you to buy something for them lest they have a meltdown.

Shelves are stocked strategically

Heorshe/Adobe 7-Eleven convenience store

Have you ever heard the phrase “eye level is buy level”? It means that grocery stores place expensive items where you’re most likely to see them and easily toss them into your cart. Chances are they’re using this strategy with kids too.

That’s also why there are so many of a given item on a shelf; the more visible it is, the more it will sell.

Signage can impact your decision making

I-Wei Huang/Adobe Duty free shop at Heathrow Airport London

Grocery store signage uses both color and text to get you to spend more. Sure, they tell you where to go, but they’re also hung at strategic levels to draw you in.

The fonts are bright and easy to read, while color works on your mood and reinforces branding. Stores will also swap out signs regularly so you don’t subconsciously block them out.

They use price tag psychology

Adam Calaitzis/Adobe for sale brown onions

It’s fairly obvious what stores are doing when the price of something ends in .99. The thing is, that can sometimes be effective at making you think a product is cheaper than it is.

The reason? Left-digit bias naturally draws your eyes in that direction, making you more likely to ignore the numbers on the right and buy the item.

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By X for X isn't what you think

VTT Studio/Adobe sale signage at a supermarket

It’s super common to see signs advertising, “Buy X items for X dollars.” Grocers assume you’ll look at the price, deduce it’s a good deal, and buy X number of a product

But often, you can still get the discounted price and not have to buy so many items. Shoppers often don’t realize this, though, and will buy the number on the sign.

Store circulars trick you into spending more

Руслан Галиуллин/Adobe brunette woman looks at the product catalog

Store newspapers may seem innocuous at worst and helpful at best; after all, there are usually coupons inside.

But look carefully and you’ll notice that many of the items aren’t really on sale — they’re just included in the flyer with standard pricing.

The devil is in the details though, as that tactic makes you think something is on sale anyway.

No windows mean no connection to the outside

viperagp/Adobe supermarket with shelves full of various products

Ever notice how grocery stores don’t have windows once you’ve gone through the front entrance?

There are several reasons for this, but one is to disconnect you from the outside world and remove any potential distractions.

This means you’re less likely to notice if it starts raining or is getting dark, keeping your shopping trip as immersive as possible.

Food scents are meant to tempt you

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe freshly baked bread in pastry department

Flowers, freshly baked bread and pastries, fried chicken — those are the sights and smells that will hit you as soon as you enter a grocery store.

This is deliberately designed to make you hungry, which will also make you more likely to make impulse purchases.

That’s why you should always have a meal before going food shopping, which can counter any temptations.

Free samples pay for themselves

Tyler Olson/Adobe salesman holding cutting board with assorted cheese

Providing free samples to customers is good for a grocery store’s bottom line. That’s even the case when outlets spend billions of dollars giving stuff away.

Maybe you feel a bit obligated to buy something you sample or maybe you just really like it. Either way, you’re spending more money.

Shopping carts are intentionally super-sized

Jenwit/Adobe cart in super market department store

Maneuvering a grocery cart at the grocery store can sometimes feel like a Herculean task.

That’s because they’re so large — nearly three times the size that they were in 1975 — which invites you to fill them up as much as possible.

Sometimes grabbing a basket can help during smaller trips, but some grocery stores don’t even have that option.

They're called loss leaders for a reason

Eric BVD/Adobe Costco Food Court Menu

Costco’s $1.50 hot dog combo and $4.99 rotisserie chicken are two prime examples of loss leaders — items that are deliberately priced super low to get you through the door.

The reasoning is that even though these items cost Costco billions in losses annually, you make up for that gap when you buy a high-ticket item, like a flat-screen TV, for example.

They use your data

bernardbodo/Adobe woman using phone in grocery store

Many grocery stores will offer a free rewards card, which gets you discounts and deals. All you need to do is provide some information and swipe the card at the checkout.

The real reason grocery stores have these programs, however, is to mine your data — and data can be more valuable than cash if you know what to do with it.

Bottom line

bernardbodo/Adobe father and daughter buying apples in grocery store

Shopping at the grocery store can be a fun activity that stimulates your senses and puts you in a good mood.

This and other tactics are by design, however, and often help these outlets rake in the profit. Be on the lookout for these sneaky grocery store tricks to help you avoid throwing away your money.

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Author Details

Cat Lafuente Cat Lafuente is a Florida-based writer and editor with extensive experience in digital and print content spaces. Her own personal finance journey — particularly consolidating debt and paying it off, in turn boosting her credit score and becoming a homeowner — inspired her to join the FinanceBuzz team; she hopes she can help others do the same.