10 Ways Grocery Stores Trick You Into Spending More

You can get your shopping done quickly -- and wisely.
You can get your shopping done quickly -- and wisely.
Marc Plantec/Getty Images

We all enjoy the thrill of saving a buck, right? The savvy shoppers among us do all sorts of things to save a few cents here and there at grocery stores, such as cutting coupons, scoping out sales and using a membership card to receive discounts.

But food stores, from gourmet retailers to budget grocery markets, have ways of getting you to fork over more of your money to them -- without you even knowing it! Sure, there's a difference between engaging in cutthroat business practices and unabashedly cheating customers. Some methods are shadier than others. Here are 10 common ways grocery stores trick you into spending more.

10
Mislabeling Meats

This tactic may seem so blatantly shady that it's hard to believe stores get away with it. Make no mistake, though: It happens. A lot.

Many grocery stores have been caught duping shoppers with this bait-and-switch -- labeling the weight of packaged meats as more than the food actually in the package. Sure, some stores intentionally put the wrong weight on containers, plain and simple. But there are more surreptitious approaches worth watching out for. Factoring the weight of the package into the reported weight of the food is one way. Another is coating meat in ice so that you end up paying a premium few cents more, which can add up over time.

9
Water-packing Meats
It's on sale, but is it a good deal?
It's on sale, but is it a good deal?
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Have you ever seen a label that says something like "up to 10 percent solution"? This is another trick stores use -- packaging meats in a water solution.

Beware of water-packed meats because the price per ounce includes all that solution. Sometimes, you'll spot stickers that claim the solution enhances the food's flavor or its other qualities. Perhaps. But keep in mind that water is relatively free for the grocery store to use, it increases the food's weight and it inevitably jacks up the price you pay. Cheap meats aren't always so inexpensive when you consider hidden costs like this one.

8
Hiding Flawed Foods

Bruised strawberries, fatty cuts of meat, torn slices of cheese: What do markets do with damaged foods like these? Bury them in packages and sell them, of course!

Instead of tossing out or donating flawed foods, stores will instead strategically arrange them among undamaged goods. This way, you don't discover the blemishes until you get home. The chance of customers like you going through the hassle of returning to the store, waiting in line and exchanging the item is pretty slim. Choose packages that clearly show contents, or pay extra attention to what you're buying to avoid getting suckered and stuck with rotten food.

7
Grouping Items That Go Together
Chips and salsa go together, but should you buy them on the same aisle?
Chips and salsa go together, but should you buy them on the same aisle?
Jack Hollingsworth/Thinkstock

Finding the foods you want at your local supermarket is something you're probably very familiar with. You go to the bakery for bread products and the butcher's counter for meats. Aisles are arranged by like products. Right?

This isn't always the case. You may not have noticed foods that go together are displayed side by side, even though they typically would be stocked in different parts of the store. Extra-thick, natural bacon and premium-brand refrigerated hash browns (neither is on sale, of course) get placed next to the egg shelf. Or an organic salsa gets placed next to tortilla chips instead of on the condiment aisle with all of the other salsas. The store's motivation in doing this is to suggest tasty (full-priced) pairings that you'll grab out of convenience instead of going to the other side of the store to compare prices.

6
Diluting Liquids

Nabbing the cheapest laundry detergent doesn't always equate to going home with the best deal. Store-brand liquids like cleansers or fruit juices are sometimes diluted. While you may only pay a fraction of what a name brand costs, you could be buying less of the active ingredients for the same price -- or more -- because the product is so watered down.

For instance, a label that reads "25 percent more" can mean 25 percent more in weight or in container size -- not the active ingredients. "Fruit juice blend" can mean a mixture is made of 20 percent juice concentrate and 80 percent sugar water.

The solution for consumers (pun intended): Question ambiguous bargain claims, and become a label reader.

5
Making Riddles of Unit Pricing
Decoding unit prices is a little like rocket science.
Decoding unit prices is a little like rocket science.
Yamini Chao/Getty Images

Just because you made a midnight ice cream run and are standing in the freezer section in your sweats doesn't mean you're going to slack on doing your due diligence now that you're there. Which one is the best deal right now? This question can be tougher to answer than you might think, thanks to grocery stores' creative use of pricing units. They mix it up on purpose. You'll find that some ice creams are priced per ounce, others per pint and others per quart. It's challenging to compare apples to apples -- or fudge ripple to rocky road. Bring a calculator or conversion chart cheat sheet to help you.

4
Placing Priciest Items at Eye level

You're most apt to notice items right in front of you when shopping. Call it human nature. It's no wonder that distributors and manufacturers pay a premium price to put their products on shelves at eye level. This prime product placement zone is where the most expensive products are usually found. Fortunately, there's an easy way to avoid falling for this trick. Avoid that middle section! Pretty simple, right? The next time you go to the grocery store, force yourself to scout out groceries on shelves up high and down low; this is usually where the less expensive brands are displayed.

3
Setting up a Strategic Floor Plan
Why do you have to walk through toiletries to get to the eggs?
Why do you have to walk through toiletries to get to the eggs?
Yamini Chao/Getty Images

Many of us purchase the same essential foods like bread, milk and eggs. These foods are so common and so popular that grocery stores go out of their way to place them as far apart as possible. This way, they get the majority of their shoppers, like you, to canvas an entire store from one end to another to get a few key items.

But why? Their hope is that you buy more. When you've been exposed to more goods during your hunt for what you really need, you'll probably toss in odds and ends you didn't intend to buy that simply look enticing in the moment.

2
Reorganizing the Store Periodically

Another way food stores indirectly trick their consumers is to reorganize (or disorganize) products periodically. Entire food sections can shift from one side of the building to the other, sometimes as often as once a year. When stuff is in a different spot, clearly you can't readily find what you need. So, what do you do? Wander up and down aisles searching for the things on your shopping list. You see a lot of items that you wouldn't otherwise notice. Animal-shaped straws -- the kids would love them! A type of parsley not carried here previously -- perfect! Inevitably, you toss some of it into your cart. The store wins again.

1
Placing TVs at Checkout Points
Your friendly cashier hopes you don't notice any of her mistakes.
Your friendly cashier hopes you don't notice any of her mistakes.
Jochen Sand/Thinkstock

It's not commonplace yet, but some food marts have started putting TVs at checkout lines. The effect is twofold. These screens expose you to product ads, perhaps prompting you to buy more stuff either during that store visit or the next time you shop. They also distract you. You're probably not as focused on making sure the cashier rings up items correctly. Nor do you notice that your child snuck a magazine or wad of candy onto the conveyor belt that just got scanned and bagged.

It's not hard to get sidetracked or distracted from the task at hand while grocery shopping. Sometimes, it's easiest to stay focused (and on budget) by simply sticking to your list and staying attentive at the checkout counter.

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