Retail stores and supermarkets are designed to get you to spend more money - here are the tricks they use

Business Insider SA


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  • South African supermarkets are designed to have consumers spend more inside. 
  • Stores use everything from design, to smell and product placement to attract consumer spending. 
  • Supermarkets are also some of the top advertising spenders in the country, with Shoprite spending over R1.4 billion on advertising alone.  
  • For more visit Business Insider South Africa.

Supermarkets and retail stores feature in the lives of most South Africans, and they are  purposefully designed in a bid to get consumers to spend more. 

And it pays off: despite the country’s retail sector facing pressure, South Africans still spend as much as R31,900 per second at supermarkets, pharmacies, and department stores.

Stores spend a lot of money on advertising to get shoppers through their doors - according to The Media Online, Shoprite, Pick n Pay and Massmart were among the top 10 advertisers in the country in 2018. Shoprite, the country’s biggest retail group and advertiser, spent more than R1.4 billion on advertising over that period. 

Inside stores themselves, supermarkets use everything from store layout, design and product pricing to trick consumers into spend more. 

Here are some of the ways South African supermarkets encourage consumers to make additional purchases.  

Healthy items up front make you feel good about your shop

It’s no coincidence that many supermarket journeys begin with a forced walk through the fruit and vegetable department. 

According to research by the University of Warwick, by making fruit and vegetables more accessible in the front of a store, people were more likely to purchase these items - increasing their sales by as much as 15%. 

Although this study was designed to subtly coerce students at the university into purchasing more healthy items, a more cynical take is that the brightly coloured fresh produce will put shoppers in a happier mood and healthier mindset - and thus feel better about purchasing the less healthy items lurking on the shelves behind.

Essential items, like milk, are often out of the way

Developers use anchor tenants, usually supermarkets and pharmacies, to pull shoppers deep into malls, and hopefully tempt shoppers into other stores along the way. 

Individual stores within malls use this tactic, too, but with specific products. They place uninteresting but necessary items, like milk, bread, and toilet paper, in the back corners of the store, to prevent a quick in and out of the shop, and to get you to walk past more items along the way.

They’ll taunt you with impulse buys at checkout

Consumers are more likely to make impulse purchases at physical stores - and they exploit this to the maximum.

Traditionally South Africa's supermarkets have lined their checkout aisles with sweets and chocolates, which are particularly hard to resist at the end of a long shop, or if you have children in tow. 

Although some stores like Woolworths have toned down the sweets in the checkout aisles, all retailers use the checkout process as the final last gasp to get you to spend a little more. 

It’s not limited to supermarkets peddling candy, either. 

A study in the United States found that shoppers spend the equivalent of more than R70,000 on useless things each year. Hardware store Builders uses these aisles to tempt you into buying items like water guns, chocolate bars, magazines and pool noodles. Electronics stores like HiFi Corporation and Dion Wired tempt you into buying batteries, plugs or cables for your new items. And even outdoor and sporting goods stores get in on the action with things like bottle openers, torches, and novelty items. 

Given the impulsive nature with which most shoppers purchase these items, there’s also a good chance they’re marked up more than if they were on regular store shelves.

Exploiting sense of smell

Scent marketing is an actual thing - and many retailers, from fashion stores and real estate agents, to supermarkets and donut shops, use this science of smell to tempt you into purchasing their products. 

Standalone stores like Cinnabon and Starbucks have mastered the art of scent marketing to make even walking past their stores without making a purchase a near impossibility. And US fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch is also famous for their use of smell marketing - all of their stores have an appealing smell, which is courtesy of their liberal spraying of the brand’s signature scent, that generates about R1 billion each year for the company.

Supermarkets also target shoppers’ senses of smell. Some in the United States pump artificial food smells into its stores. But often this is slightly more innocent - freshly baked bread, fresh coffee stands, and the increasing prevalence of in-store cooking demonstrations are all designed to appeal to our olfactory organs and influence our shopping habits.

Music designed to make you spend

Music plays a big role in the retail environment - and some believe that songs can actually subtly manipulate shoppers. 

Stores use music to set a certain mood and tone, especially around shopping occasions like Christmas. But there are also studies, including one from the early-80s, that argue the pace and tempo of music can impact on shoppers. 

In that study, the author found that music can affect how quickly shoppers walk through a store - and slower music may cause customers to reduce their speed and ultimately purchase more items from the shelves.

It’s impossible to compare the prices of some products

One of the best ways for shoppers to reduce spend in supermarkets is to compare prices of competing products, or the prices of loose versus packaged items. 

But in many stores it’s almost impossible to compare products due to a refusal to post per kilogram pricing.  

The fruit and veg aisle is particularly good at making products difficult to price, particularly when it comes to whole, and packaged items. Whole unpacked items, such as butternuts and cucumbers, are often priced per unit, whereas their sliced or packaged items are priced per kilogram, making a comparison nearly impossible.

Buying in bulk is not always more economical

Budget-conscious shoppers will know that in most cases buying items in bulk will be cheaper than buying them in smaller quantities. 

But some stores, in particular liquor shops, know and exploit this. It’s not uncommon to find alcohol in bigger quantities costing more per litre than those in smaller quantities, contrary to what seems like common sense. The cynical shopper might deduce from this that this is a clever ploy to sell the bigger bottles at a higher markup.

Those discounts and sales aren’t actually all that great

Discounts and sales are commonplace in retail stores in South Africa. Most retail stores offer regular ‘specials’ and promotions, including the increasingly popular ‘buy one get, one free’ type deal.

Although these deals may offer some benefit, particularly with regards to items that won’t spoil, they’re used largely as a way to manipulate shoppers.

According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there’s considerable selling power in the word “free” - in their experiment, just mention of the word was enough to change buying habits.

There are other tricks at play in this department. 

Some stores have previously been accused of repackaging items into smaller containers, and then offering them as buy one, get one free. But the even less nefarious reason for this type of deal is a way to sell lower quality, overstocked, or ageing products nearing their sell-by dates, at good markups - all under the pretence of giving back to shoppers. 

Other stores offer deals like “buy three for R60” - even when the individual product costs R20.

And regular sales might not be as great as you think, either. Much like online stores, many physical shops set their own recommended retail prices, and thus offer much smaller discounts than they claim. Some may also quietly increase the price before the sales in order to offer bigger “discounts”. 

Still, in spite of the knowledge by most shoppers that stores don’t give anything away for free, sales like these are a great way for retailers to move more items, drive impulse purchases, and make shoppers feel as if they are benefitting in some way.

Promotion discounts not deducting

Even if you do scoop a good deal on a necessary item, it’s not uncommon for the deal advertised on the shelves to have expired on the point of sale system. 

This might mean that the deal doesn’t reflect when you check out, and you end up purchasing items at full price, instead of receiving the promised discount. Some stores have a policy that entitles you to discounts in this case - but the onus is still on the shopper to identify the mistake.

Shelf space is carefully allocated

Most big retailers use planograms, which are schematic drawings for displaying products in a store, with the sole purpose of maximising sales. This affects shelf space, aisle width, and even store layout.

Products at eye level, and those you can reach and view easily, for example, are likely to sell better than those higher or lower on the shelves. Because of this, it’s common for eye-level products to be more expensive than those higher up. Premium products wrestle for placement at eye-level, and it’s often the case that cheaper store brands are placed much higher up.

Stores also use planograms to organise products in aisles that might not fall into the same category - for example, olive oil and pasta. Traditionally these might be in different parts of the store, but many place them together in the hope that shoppers will buy both at the same time.

Essentially this means that from the moment you step foot in a big store, your every possible move has been considered - and where possible - manipulated to the benefit of the business.

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