Psychological Warfare In The Grocery Store & How to Fight Back

Everyone knows the purpose of a commercial on TV is to sell you a product. We also know as we watch them, or fast forward through them, that there is marketing taking place on the psychological level. Some of it is blatant and some of it is subliminal. What we don’t often consider, is that these tactics are also surrounding us each time we enter a grocery store.

Ride in the Shopping Cart photo: Caden Crawford

The psychology of the grocery store impacts the innocent shopper in a multiple ways. It influences what we buy, how much we buy, and how often we stray from our list of good intentions. This can leave people who are striving to stay on budget and eat healthy with shopping carts full of unintended purchases.

Like any battlefield, knowing the opponent’s strategy is half the battle. The other half is creating your own.

Location, Location, Location

We’ve all heard the advice about sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store when shopping, and for good reason. The perimeter of the store houses the fresh produce, fruits, veggies, and grains which should be the staples of our overall diet. The inner aisles contain mainly processed foods and landmines like the snack and candy aisles.

Grocery stores are well aware of our attempts to avoid their inner aisles and fight back by placing tempting products on the outer portions of the lanes. This increases the likelihood that shoppers will see these items as they attempt to stroll past them. In fact, the end-of-aisle placement is so profitable that manufacturers are willing to pay extra money to ensure stores will stock their products in this prime real estate.

Additionally, stores place more expensive (and often less healthy) products at eye level to the consumer. These products are often brightly colored and highly recognizable brand names.

Think of the cereal aisle for example; kids in shopping carts can point to that familiar box of sugary, like Lucky Charms, putting pressure on the parent while the generic items are safely tucked away on the bottom row, away from eyesight. The healthier cereals are often up high and out of reach. It’s a perfect recipe for success for the store, and a disaster for the health and cost-conscious consumer.


In the grocery store, labels are weapons of mass distraction for the consumer. Manufacturers bank on brand names and brightly-colored, attention-grabbing logos. They also take advantage of popular keywords like fat free, organic, reduced sugar, and gluten-free. Essentially they are marketing to our fears about the rise of chronic illness and obesity.

These keywords grab the attention of shoppers as they scan the aisle for healthy options. Again, the placement of these cleverly labeled products is usually at eye level. It has been proven that many of these labels are misleading to the consumer. A closer inspection of the ingredients and nutrition information is required to determine which labels are accurate and which are deceptive marketing tactics.

Here again, color appears as an important aspect of the psychology employed by product manufacturers. Bright colors demand attention and stand out from the often bland color schemes of generic products. Colors like purple, black, and gold are popular label choices used to maximize the likelihood of effective product marketing.

Social Media

Commercials obviously influence consumer spending and decision making. But it’s not just advertisements on television impacting our decisions anymore. Manufacturers rely heavily on social media for marketing of their products. From Facebook to Twitter and everything in between, consumers are bombarded with images, specials and enticing offers, and clever customer engaging tactics.

With the average American adult spending eleven plus hours a day online it’s no wonder that companies have taken their advertising bombardment to social media outlets.

On Facebook, these ads are part of the average person’s newsfeed and they are tailored to what is most likely to appeal to each individual. Clever posts involving recipes with mouth watering photos get noticed and shared in the thousands. People are encouraged to “like” company and product pages, automatically signing them up for more targeted advertisements.

On Twitter companies engage with users by posting funny or interesting tweets that engages users. This engagement plays out in front of millions and draws in more commentary and interest in the brand. Involvement of this type sticks in the minds of consumers and, subconsciously or consciously, can influence what and how much we purchase.

Fighting Back

Now that you are more aware of the different psychological marketing ploys at play in the grocery store, it’s time to build up your own defense. Being aware is the first step, and it allows consumers to not only notice when they are “being had”, but to take a step back and make better decisions.

The second line of defense? Perimeters. If you stick to the perimeters of the store, you’ll avoid most of the battleground and can save both your health and your wallet from invasion. Just remember while circling the store to avoid looking at the products waving at you from their prime locations at the end of the aisles.

While you’re keeping in mind location, location, location, be sure to stick to that well thought out list made with a full stomach and good intentions, and away from the bright lights shining on all of the pretty packaging. Stick to it and you’ll find yourself high-fiving your success on the way home.

There are other things you can add to your arsenal to help fight back against tricky marketing. Never go on an empty stomach or when you’re overwhelmed with stress. Practice mindfulness while you’re at the store instead of focusing on your never ending to do list. The less time you spend in the store the more money and wise choices you’ll have when you exit. Keep a budget in mind and a calculator app handy if math isn’t one of your strong suits.

Grocery stores and manufacturers are smart but they can’t overpower the intellectually prepared shopper that is you. Now go out there and show them who’s boss.


Stephanie is a writer for sites like Kindness Blog, xoJane, and Huffington Post. She finds herself shopping on an empty stomach without a calculator more often than she cares to admit. You can find her on Twitter or read more on her blog.



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