6 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Supermarkets
Your local grocery store is a psychological minefield, where even the bananas are ripe with mystery.
1. SOUTHPAWS HAVE AN INVISIBLE ADVANTAGE
You’ve probably seen that stores keep go-to items—produce, meats, dairy—on the perimeter. But did you notice that most of them are set up to make your lap run counterclockwise? “Ninety percent of us are right-handed, so we buy more when it’s counterclockwise. It puts us closer to the shelf,” says Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Places that do this see sales climb 7 percent. You’ll also often find the dairy section in the back left corner: Because dairy is likely on your list, stores make sure you take the longest route to get there. In fairness, it’s also a more convenient place to put a fridge.
2. EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
Psychologists weigh in on some store layouts. “They study buyers’ behavior and they come and reset the store based on perceived habits,” says Jake Sitler of Barry’s Country Food Market in Craley, Pennsylvania. It’s safe to say that nothing you see on a shelf is there by chance. The cookies on sale at the end of an aisle may look like a coincidental great deal, but they’re likely the result of product placement—a company paid for that real estate. It’s a smart spot: Besides the checkout counter, most impulse buys occur at the endcaps. More expensive items are usually placed at an adult’s eye level, while colorful cereals and treats are positioned lower—to catch the gaze of children.
3. WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
When an employee says they’ll “check in the back” for an item, they’re just being polite. Most stores order goods to go directly from the truck to the shelf, skipping the back room entirely. “There’s an assumption we have so much stuff in our back room, and it is absolutely false,” says Dara Gocheski, a former Trader Joe’s employee.
4. THE EXPIRATION DATE ON THAT MEAT MAY BE MEANINGLESS
Matt Adams, who spent 28 years as a supermarket meat cutter, says his employer frequently used nail polish remover to wipe the sell-by date off outdated items. “You guys can’t do this,” he said. “What if some little old lady buys this?” It turns out you can. If meat was packaged under the watch of federal inspectors, supermarkets can’t change the date. But if the retailers butchered and packaged the meat themselves, they can change the label on a whim. In fact, 30 states don’t regulate the expiration dates for most items.
5. TIME GOES BY SO SLOWLY
Supermarkets rarely have windows or clocks. With no reference to the outside world, customers can easily lose track of how long they’ve been there. Grocery store overlords may use another trick to manipulate your sense of time: small floor tiles. The incessant click-clack of a shopping cart’s wheels can make customers think they’re racing around and encourages them to take a relaxed pace. And stores know that at a relaxed pace, customers buy more.
6. BANANAS ARE AN ART FORM
Bananas are so important to a supermarket’s bottom line that grocers know exactly what shade of banana you’re most likely to buy: Pantone color 12-0752, also known as “Buttercup.” To ensure the bananas on display are the closest to this shade, stores use a ripeness scale that ranges from one (all green) to seven (yellow with brown flecks). Some stores even use special lighting to make bananas look more appealing. “They’ll filter an ambient light in front of the box used to highlight the bananas so they become more yellow,” Lindstrom says. As for the water sprayed on the other produce? It makes veggies look fresh, but keeping them wet actually makes them rot faster. It also makes produce heavier—and therefore pricier.