The sneaky powers of supermarkets

24 May 2010

Ahhh the joys of supermarket shopping: that favoured Saturday morning pastime where eagle-eyed trolley-pushers rediscover their hunter-gatherer instincts and go wild in the aisles.
And in these tough economic times, the tantalising prospect of a three-for-two deal on cat litter, 20p off a bottle of soy sauce or an introductory offer on Cajun squirrels chops can often prove irresistible.
Unless of course you don’t own a cat, you’re on a salt-restricted diet or you believe that squirrels are actually woodland vermin.
But even so the prospect of a bargain can often make you think twice (squirrel could soon be the new chicken) and by goodness, don’t the supermarkets know this.
Last weekend I wandered into my local supermarket, running through my shopping list in my mind as I joined the scrum for the baskets. Thirty minutes later I found myself heaving three overflowing shopping bags to the bus stop, cereal boxes jostling for space with bags of potatoes and the odd bottle of wine or three. Nothing too unusual there, I hear you say. Well apart from the fact I’d only gone in there to buy bread, milk and washing up liquid.
That was before I saw the special offers – buy a multipack of Lucozade Sport and get another one free, half price on a brand of cereal I’d never heard of before and £1.50 off some fabric conditioner, which didn’t smell anything like it said it did on the bottle.
Now, everyone likes a bargain; that smug sense of saving money, even if it’s only a couple of quid. The problem was I ended up spending £30 when I only meant to spend £3. Well, you’re a bit of a sucker, you’re probably thinking.
Sadly, I’d have to agree but (and it’s rather a large but) the supermarkets and many other retailers have refined the art of making you part with much more of your cash than you originally intended. You don't even realise how much extra you've spent until the cashier is helping you bag up your large amount of food and other stuff because you’re holding up the queue.

There are numerous tricks of the trade – most of which I have fallen for too many times to remember. The good old placing the ‘essentials’ at the back, making you walk through aisles of premium goods before you can reach that own brand loaf of bread.
According to the retail psychologists (a growing field it would appear), by putting the more expensive items at the front of the store you think lower priced items are much better value than they actually are. A cheap trick, it seems, but an oh-so-effective one.
Then there’s the rather annoying habit the supermarkets have of shuffling their goods round every so often. The idea is that as you wander round, a little dazed and confused in the cat food aisle when you’re actually in search of the tinned tomatoes, you stumble across products you would never normally buy. And the ones the retailers would like you to most splash out on are always the ones placed at eye level. They’re cunning folk indeed, these retailers.
Irrational pricing deserves its own special mention just because of the way it manages to bypass the logical part of your brain and zone in on your inner bargain hunter. There may only be 1p difference to something priced at £2.99 and £3, but somehow it seems like you’re doing your bank account a massive favour with the £2.99 option. It gets me every time.
But my particular favourite is the reduced section, that shrine to almost out-of-date food, which often leads to a rugby scrum type scenario. It never fails to amaze me that you can turn an otherwise sane person into an irrational hoarder just by knocking £1 off the price of a premium food item.
Many a time I have watched friends and relatives load up their trolleys with handfuls of avocados (which have already seen better days) and three tubs of coleslaw (all of which boast a best before date of the following day). Now I know you’re unlikely to keel over and die if you at something a few days after the best before date, but it takes a very particular type of stomach to cope with that much coleslaw in such a short space of time.  
That aside, I’ve always maintained that shopping is an art form in its own right – you have more colours assaulting your eyeballs than when you look at your average Picasso painting and more coded messages to decipher than in the Bible.
Supermarket shopping is no exception, but sadly I’m still very much a novice when it comes to getting the best out of the retailer’s ploys - much to my bank account’s loss and their gain. My only consolation is when I look at the multi-million profits the supermarkets are raking in I can feel like I’m really doing my bit for reinvigorating the British economy.