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.


    You've got 4 twice. Yeah, I'm being that guy today.

      By all means be that guy -- it's those details that mark out a smart shopper :) Error fixed now.

    This is CRAZY advice! I have 4 of those lolly jars in my house now and about 15 kilos of Allens lollies! That is a bargain my friend.... LOL!

    One of the biggest "deceptive" things I find is the loose vs packed fruit and veg differences. For instance, I've seen two types of ginger next to each other in my local supermarket, same country of origin, looking pretty much identical, but the ginger already in the little sealed plastic bag was over 5x the price per weight. And if I look around the rest of the fruit and veg section, much the same story is repeated many times. In this situation, the unit pricing really helps.

      Bagged apples are usually cheaper too but not knowing what's in the bag (quality wise) isn't worth the savings for mine. The 1kg bags of potatoes are usually pretty good at my local shops though.

      Similarly, quite often meat from the deli counter is cheaper than the packaged stuff in the self-serve freezers. They may both be plain ol' Woolworths skin-off chicken breast, but they've got different prices.

        Yeah, took me a while to catch onto this.. when you think about it though, makes sense. The packaged stuff probably incurs an extra cost for the packaging, whereas the deli stuff is basically just wrapped in paper.

          Not really, the deli has to be staffed full time. The packaging costs next to nothing, and is prepared by automated mechanical means, and in the end the deli goods are placed in a plastic bag and paper. It's more of an argument of the price of a 200 mL can of coke vs a 2 L bottle. The deli meat companies simply place larger markup on the smaller units.

            Don't forget that sometimes it is different suppliers that supply the chicken to the meat and deli departments. Each department will has a person dealing with suppliers, and because the Meat Department is different to the Deli, they have diffferent people buying the products. Sometimes they might work together in the case of chickens stuff, but over all different people making the deals for the departments they oversee. (I'm talking about regions here, not store per store).

        One thing, buying at the deli (or even better a butcher), lets you buy less, or more, than the standard unit pricing on prepackaged goods. You can buy 1 piece of steak, or 3 and half sausages if you want! Always remember you can buy below the "price per kilo" signage.

      I stopped buying mince at the supermarket when they stopped letting you get it from the Deli. They trick people by having sizes that are usually too small for say a group of four people, and then one that is too big. I always go to my local butcher now, they're actually right next to the Coles in my area.

    On the 'Home Brands' thing, check active ingredients in cleaning products. I discovered that the home brand Bathroom Mould Spray from Woolies contains about 10 X MORE active ingredient than one of the much more expensive sprays, although most are closer across the range it contains more active ingredients than ANY of the other sprays. It is also made in Australia, unlike some of the others. (and it's the cheapest). I was standing there comparing label data when someone cruised past, grabbing the brightest coloured packaged one and dropping it in their trolley. Little did they know they bought a) the most expensive b) one not made in Australia and c) the one with the lowest concentration of active ingredients.

      I found, however, that the Home Brand Mould Killer spray trigger bit stopped working properly before I got even half the way through the bottle. So packaging quality is also part of the equation, not just the active ingredients, for some items.

    We try to grab as much meat as we can from the quick sale area. As long as it's still good quality you can quite often save about 30% right up to 70%. The best part is that there's something different in there every time so it helps to add some variety to our meals, rather than having the same meals week in week out.

    My biggest gripe is when they put one size on special but not the other.
    Let's say they discount the 375g jar. Inevitably it runs out so they place the 500g size in it's space and leave the special tag on the shelving!
    When I see that, and I see it often, I'll RIP THAT FUCKING SPECIAL TAG OFF and throw it away.

      FUCK YEAH!!

        Take that special tag - with the product to the front desk... get it for free!

          Not necessarily. Most stores only sell it to you at the price of the ticket, not free, and they're not required to by law. Some stores don't discount at all - or max 1 item. And if they believe you're lying - like either yourself or a friend moved the products around you definitely won't get any. My brother worked at Harvey Norman - and someone pointed out to him that a $3000 TV had a price tag of $19.95 . He didn't get the TV for $20.

            Correct, sort of. There's nothing legally requiring a store to price match a ticket item. In fact, a price ticket is simply an invitation to treat, so a store can happily withdrawn the item from sale if the price is wrong. Naturally, keeping a customer happy will usually see them honouring in some manner a match or discount. That is, assuming you're nice about it. Be a douche to the staff and they'll be more inclined to refuse your demands.

            That said, the major supermarket chains (Coles, Woolies, Bilo and Franklins) have signed onto the voluntary Supermarket Code of Practice. This is the one that brings up the 'if the item scans wrong, it's free' etc policy. Unfortunately, as you indicate, people seem to think this applies EVERYWHERE, which is certainly not the case. Other chains have their own similar policy, but this is the big one.

      You fucking idiot.You could have got it either for free or at the "lower price". Because of you, there stories like this on lifehacker.

    I find we spend $100 less per week doing online shopping either coles or woolies. You order what you need. No spontaneous buying.

    My number one tip is do not buy any food made in China. It's slightly off topic, but it's worth repeating,'s_Republic_of_China

    There have been several instances of Chinese manufacturers putting melamine in the food because it increases the protein levels - however, your body can not get rid of the melamine and it is almost certain to kill you if you have enough. The risk to you and your family is your choice - but I avoid food manufactured in China.

      +1. I can't remember if it's Arnott's or Kraft (Captain's Table) that make their water crackers in China.

      I know people now complain about "own brand" nowadays, but at least Cole's water crackers are made here.

        Pretty sure it's not Arnott's. Most if not all their stuff is made in Australia.

        Yeah, it's the captains table brand that's made in china. Alot of Kraft brands are now, such as Oreo, in-a-biskit and the like. Arnott's are all Australian owned and made - but export "Arnotts" bran may not be, s watch for parallel imports sold at crazy clarkes and sams werehouse and the 2 dollar shops. Same goes with Nescafe coffee bought at cheap shops - same brand, but not the same ingrediantsor quality!

      Bloody hell. Just checked the ALDI food labals and half the stuff is from China, WTF.

    number four the first would be against ACCC laws surely? They say the original price needs to be honest.

      In fact, sure enough they are breaking the law by showing the WAS price in early January 2009 and setting the NOW price some 3 years later cheaper!

      The ACCC say at

      Strike-through pricing
      Strike-through pricing is where the higher price of a product is crossed out and a second lower price is offered.

      The trader must have offered these goods at the higher price for a reasonable period of time—that is, it must be a genuine pre-sale price.

      For example, if a swing tag on a dress has a price of $100 crossed out and a new price of $70 offered, the dress must have been available at that price before the new price was applied and have been offered at that price for a reasonable period of time.

        The key here is the "reasonable period". Unfortunately, the ACCC rule doesn't say that it has to be the immediate preceding period, just that it had to be the consistent price for a "reasonable period" -- and the small-print date essentially stops Woolworths (or anyone else doing this) from breaking the law.

          A price three years ago cannot be seen as reasonable. One way to find out. /grins

        Unless stated otherwise - the stores clearly identify the date that the item was that price.

    It's like Steam holiday sales. People buy games for cheap - but never end up playing most of what they buy. Did they want the games, or is it just that they think theyre getting a good bargain?

    I always do these things and lecture my mother when she doesn't read the prices and fine print

    I have seen 'aisle end' displays of goods that are not on special - they are put there so people will assume they are on special.

      In the case of my store, because you have too much of the stuff, no one bought it, and you havn't got the time or staff to change it, or there is nothing that can tie in with the other products on the special end. No point sticking some shoes on a end with rice.

    Angus, you make some good points here, but I think a couple of things on your list are a far stretch at best. And by this I mean they are not "sneaky tricks", but merely good business.

    1. A good point and true. I first heard about this over 20 years ago and it is still common practice. In addition to this, it's also worth noting that premium (market leading) brands will often pay for premium shelf space.

    2. Good point! It has always been true that bigger sizes don't always equal better value. This is easier to identify now thanks to unit pricing.

    3. You'd have to be a fool to buy purely for points.
    But letting points be the decider on a product choice is not alwys a bad idea. With Flybuys, the 500 points you mentioned would contribute $2.50 towards an at-checkout discount of $10 for redeeming 2000 points. Nothing is required from you. You will always be offered this $10 discount if your Flybuys account ballance exceeds $10.

    4. Deceptively labelled price drops. I can't comment on the example you have offered where a saving is highlighted in comparison to a 3 year old price. Sounds plenty dodgy to me though!
    I'd like to add another example of deceptive price drops. The day before Coles or Woolies announce a new "Down and Staying Down" price on their store lable product, they delete and remove the Smart Buy (Coles) or Home Brand (Woolies) version, so the saving on their premium version looks like a bigger saving.
    This started when Coles dropped the price of Coles brand milk from $2.49 to $2.00. Sounds like a huge saving right? What they hope you don't know, is that the day before, you could buy Coles Smart Buy milk for only $2.09, but now it suddenly doesn't exist. This has been repeated across several categories by BOTH major supermarkets. Now THAT is sneaky!

    5. Lookalike Packaging. Ummmm - yeah maybe. But I don't think they're trying to fool anyone, and surely nobody is actually fooled. What they're aiming for is a perception that their own brand offers the same quality you already know from the established brand. It's a deliberate attempt to move away from the perception that store labels are always inferior quality, and instead establish the idea that it might be OK to pay more for them than we have in the past and still save money compared to the big name brand.

    Sorry for the essay. I just felt that this article missed the mark on a few points.

    Another one to watch is the markdown tags, that alot of the time may only be markdowns of 20cents or less...

    With number 4, you make a claim, but don't provide any evidence. I work in a supermarket and all I can say about adding the old price to the tickets is advertising that the item and SKU got cheaper so stop bitching that EVERYTHING is getting more expensive.

    A guy in Safeway went and weighed all the packets of nuts with the scales in the fruit and vegie section - then he went off because NONE of them had the correct amount and they were always under. I've never thought to weigh things,
    Also, our local store often replaces "on special" items when they run out, with the same item of a bigger size which isn't on swap 250gram coffee with 750gram. If you only look at the tag you get ripped off - I see stacks of people loading up their trolleys with these rip off items and when they get to the checkout they (mostly) pretend they meant to buy it.

      Is the scale in the Fruit and Veggie area correctly calibrated?
      This may be an 'indication only' as you are not paying on the weight it displays. It may not be calibrated like the ones at Point of Sale are (and are required by law to be).

    The top shelf: out of reach for most (except me). Being tall I can do anything I like. Perhaps they might impose a 10% tallness tax because of that. When I BENDOVER a midget might try to sexually ASSualt me. I would then sue Coles (or whoever) for store induced trauma. Silly you want-silly you get.

    I hate the "2 for $4" bread. Its $3.20 for 1, but I can't eat 1 before it goes moldy.
    Why not just have 1 for $2?

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