Five Sneaky Tricks Supermarkets Use To Make You Spend More (And How To Beat Them)

Supermarket shopping can be like a war: you want to save money, the retailer wants you to spend more. Arm yourself for the battle by avoiding these sneaky tricks.

The basics of saving money when shopping at a supermarket — any supermarket — are unchanging:

  • Plan your menus for the week, plan a shopping list and stick to it. If an item you regularly buy is on special, consider stocking up, but don’t be tempted purely by a ‘special’ price if you don’t have a definite plan for how to use the product.
  • Eat before you shop so that hunger doesn’t tempt you.
  • Take a balanced approach to house-brand goods: if you’ve tried them and they work as well as the equivalent name brand, you can save a lot. Experience will vary even within a single supermarket, but don’t let a bias for or against store-branded goods needlessly inflate your bill (or fill your cupboard with substandard options).

For more hints, check out our top 10 tips for saving money at the supermarket. Here, we’re concentrating on the sneaky shelving and pricing strategies that supermarkets use to try and persuade you to spend more.

5. Lookalike packaging

As we’ve pointed out before, store brand goods are often packaged in a way to resemble pricier counterparts. If you’re not concentrating when you shop, you could easily buy something unintentionally, as this video from Mumbrella highlights:

How to beat this trick: Try not to shop in a hurry: take time and make sure you have picked up what you want. If the house brand items suit you, grab those, but do that as a conscious choice, not as the result of a mistake.

4. Deceptively labelled price drops

At a casual glance, the picture at the top of this article suggests that 20 cents has been sliced off a carton of UHT milk. It’s only when you look closely that you see the small print date: 08/01/09. In fact, the week before this price cut, this carton of milk was $1.08. $0.99 is still a cheaper price, but the drop is not as dramatic as the tag suggests.

How to beat this trick: Whenever you see a claimed price reduction, look carefully to see if it represents a drop from the most recent price. And remember that the product on special still may not be the cheapest option, so compare with other rivals using unit pricing data to see if it’s really a good deal.

3. Buying purely for points

You see an offer for ‘500 extra points’ if you buy two of an item or a free cookie jar, and before you know it something unplanned is in your trolley. What you’ve forgotten is that 500 points only get you fractionally closer to getting a free offer through a loyalty program, and that you may well have paid more than a rival item.

How to beat this trick: The basic shopping rule applies: it’s not a bargain if you didn’t need to buy it anyway. You’ll be earning points purely for shopping; those bonus points only really make sense if the purchase is justified without them. And that’s assuming they make sense at all.

2. Bigger sizes not being cheaper

Buying bulk is often cheaper, but that isn’t invariably the case. For instance, Woolworths online charges 74 cents for a 400 gram tin of diced tomatoes, but $1.60 for an 800 gram tin. Grabbing the larger tin as a reflex action will actually cost you more.

How to beat this trick: Once again, unit pricing is your friend. If multiple sizes are available, check the unit pricing to see which one is actually cheaper (as well as considering if you can use the bulk amount sensibly). Many shoppers believe they use unit pricing data but actually don’t; this is definitely a case where checking the fine print helps.

1. Cheapest items on the bottom shelf

The goods you see at eye level will rarely be the bargain-priced options. If you’re looking to save, check the bottom shelf — that’s where the cheapest house brand and other goods will often be. This isn’t always the case: it won’t always be the case in categories where house brand goods are the most popular choice, and it doesn’t fully apply in supermarkets like ALDI that generally only sell single brands and don’t actually have shelves. Nonetheless, it happens often enough to make “eyes down” solid shopping advice.

How to beat this trick: Scan the whole category, not just what you can easily see. Also be wary of aisle-end specials for items you don’t regularly buy, since you can’t compare prices to alternatives easily.

Any other supermarket tactics you find sneaky? Tell us in the comments.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.

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