Lost in the Supermarket

Going to the Market

On your last trip to the supermarket, did you use a wheeled cart? Did you pick any product placed on the end of the aisle because it looked like a bargain? Did you change your mind at the last minute about which tomato sauce you wanted? Did you have to walk all around to find the few basic things that you needed? Was the checkout line long? And did the cashier smile while waving goodbye?

Well, none of those details were incidental. All are part of a carefully designed shopping experience planned by marketing experts, who know exactly what colors, collisions and activities make you want to buy more. You may think doing your groceries is a perfectly rational activity. You go to get what you need. Classic economic theories support this idea: you, as a consumer, are using your more or less limited means (money) to satisfy your desires. But that’s only theory. In reality, the consumer is less a rational actor who defines his or her own desires, and more the object of other people’s rational calculations about profit margins and sales quotas.

Think you know what you want? The truth is that you instinctively want everything. Henry Horne, a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, called it the “hoarding appetite”, while contemporary scientists have found that your brain somehow associates “positive emotions, such as pleasure and excitement” with acquiring new stuff.

Research done by a consumer association in Spain found that 48.5% of consumers admit to having bought more than what they initially planned. According to other studies, up to 40% of consumers change their minds at the point of purchase because they have seen something else, and 55% of shoppers decide which product to buy in the moment, rather than thinking it through in advance. The choices you make aren’t yours, either. A well-designed supermarket is a sensational landscape of actions, spaces, situations and impressions that plants thoughts in your brain, and changes your mind. Branding alone can inscribe sacred meanings into products; Apple computers have been found to stimulate the same parts of the brain that respond to religious iconography.

Skeptical? Take a trip to your nearest supermarket, and compare your experience to this month’s series of illustrated supermarket strategies by Giada Fiorindi. Five bucks says whatever tricks you find revealed here, you will find in practice, there.