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Food & Drink

9 dirty tricks supermarkets use to make you spend more money

Did you know supermarkets employ some cunning tactics to make you spend more money? Here's how they do it and how to avoid being duped.

woman holding finger in front of her lips and shopping cart

Credit: Monkeyoum, WAYHOME studio – Shutterstock

So, you thought the supermarkets were on your side, helping you save extra pennies whenever they can?

While there are lots of great deals that genuinely could save you a packet, don't forget that supermarkets are out to make money from you, plain and simple.

From dodgy money-saving offers that don't actually save you money to multi-buys that cost the same as buying individual items, supermarkets use sneaky marketing tricks to get their hands on your hard-earned cash.

Arm yourself with the facts below and think twice before grabbing that special offer.

Sneaky supermarket marketing strategies

From a clever supermarket floorplan to not-so-affordable deals, here are the sneaky supermarket secrets they don't want you to know:

  1. Floor layouts that make you spend more

    supermarket freezer shelves filled with food

    It's crazy, but you wouldn't believe the amount of time and effort that goes into the supermarket layout – all with the intention of encouraging you to spend more cash.

    Here are just a few of the ways they get you:

    • Playing slow music to make you feel less rushed and happy to spend more time (and money) in store
    • Putting healthy fruit and veg at the front so you shop there first and don't feel guilty about the less healthy foods that go into your basket later
    • Placing essential items at the back and far away from each other so you have to look for them (and come across a few things you don't need but want to buy along the way)
    • Keeping eggs in strange places so you end up on an egg hunt (and not the Easter kind)
    • Stacking more expensive products at eye level and stocking popular combinations (like tortilla chips and salsa) next to each other to encourage you to get both
    • Covering tills with last-minute 'essentials' to encourage impulse buying.

    Some supermarkets have even been known to lay smaller floor tiles along the aisles that have more expensive stock, so the sound of your trolley wheels speeding up will encourage you to slow down and spend longer looking at the shelf items – mindblowing stuff, right?

  2. Bogus BOGOF deals

    The classic buy-one-get-one-free offer is a popular one. But while real BOGOF deals can be a steal, too often these offers are one of the many supermarket marketing tricks that don't work in your favour.

    We've even seen situations where supermarkets have hiked the price of the item during the BOGOF deal, meaning it's actually cheaper to look for the same item not included in the promotion.

    Take your time, look at individual prices and compare before you put something in your basket.

  3. Multi-buy offers that won't help you save money

    Some multi-buy offers (where you're told that you'll save by buying in bulk) can't be considered 'offers' at all.

    While they won't cost you more, they often won't save you anything either, meaning you've just been tricked into buying way more of a product than you intended to.

    For example, you might come across offers such as '3 for £3' when the item is individually priced at £1 each anyway.

    This supermarket psychology tricks your brain into thinking you've got a good deal by getting more for your money, even if you don't need (or want) it.

  4. 'Top deals' that aren't that top

    wolf of wall street throwing money off a yacht

    Credit: Paramount Pictures

    When walking around your supermarket aisles, it's likely you'll be inundated with lots of brightly coloured signs for 'top deals', 'lowest prices ever' or other not-to-be-missed deals.

    While these are supposedly products that have been reduced to a cheaper price than normal, we recommend having a good look at what the original price of the item was.

    Research has found that many of these so-called 'deals' had been the same price for six months, while others had actually increased in price.

  5. Leaving outdated promotions on display

    A BBC investigation in 2017 found that Tesco had been particularly bad at keeping their displays up to date, leaving promotional branding up after deals have already ended.

    The result of their experiment was that they were overcharged for their purchases at 33 out of 50 stores they visited. We're sure Tesco aren't the only offender, either.

    Make sure you always check your promotion has been deducted at the check-out, and if not, show the display to a manager and ask customer services for your money back – that's your right as a customer. Some supermarkets will even pay you double the difference as a peace offering.

  6. Misleading packaging

    The fancy packaging of that 'high quality' bacon can convince you it's going to be much nicer, but will you really be able to taste the difference?

    The packaging on supermarket premium brands is designed to tempt you into parting with those few extra pennies, but in reality, your extra cash is mostly just used to cover the cost of said fancy packaging.

    Downshifting your weekly shop to value brands can save you up to £520 a year. Imagine what you could buy with that.

    STS reader David Hamilton, from the University of Sunderland, also suggests staying clear of the 'to go' sections:

    Never buy food from the food-to-go section as they have the same food in much larger portions at a cheaper price in other areas of the supermarket. For example, pasta pots might be £2 for a small tub but in the main shop they'll have a pot double the size for £1, but maybe without a fork included.

  7. Encouraging shoppers to bulk buy

    Thanks to wholesale supermarkets, it has been drilled into us that buying bulk-sized products over smaller items will automatically involve a saving.

    Buying a massive tub of butter rather than a small one can seem like a good deal – by getting a larger amount in one go, you're saving on expensive packaging, right? But some supermarkets take advantage of that assumption and will price the larger tub higher than two smaller tubs which combined have the same weight.

    They'll often also make it tricky to work out the weight-to-price ratio by labelling one product in grams and another in kilograms to throw you off.

    If supermarkets can use tricks, so can we. Did you know you can use supermarket cashback apps to get freebies and money back?
  8. Making comparisons impossible

    This might totally go against your best instincts, but while packaged goods do normally cost more than loose items, this isn't always the case.

    Supermarkets rely on the fact you think this way, and will often make comparing items confusing. This is particularly the case with fresh produce like fruit and veg. For example, packaged cucumbers will be priced per item, while the price for loose ones will be displayed in grams.

  9. Online shopping substitutions

    dog using computer

    Credit: Kalamurzing - Shutterstock

    Unfortunately, supermarket tricks aren't just for in-store shopping. They also use them for your online food shop – nowhere is safe.

    For example, you'll already be well acquainted with the sidebars they use to bring up similar items they think you might be tempted to part more cash on, but you'll almost never see value brand items in there.

    Also watch out for the 'allow substitutes' box – checking this means that they can change parts of your order if they've sold out, and replace it with something else.

    Some people report being given more expensive items as replacements and only being charged for the cheaper version (neat!), but some have been known to throw in a more pricey replacement and charge you extra.

    If you notice that something has been substituted when your delivery arrives, some supermarkets will let you refuse it at the door and have the driver return with it for a full refund.

    The smartest move here would be to contact the supermarket customer service and find out what their policy on this is.

You don't have to treat food shopping like a SAS mission, of course, but by being savvy to these supermarket strategies you can watch out for duff deals and save yourself a few quid.

Now you've swatted up on the tricks to avoid, here are some supermarket money-saving tips to try out.


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