/ Shopping

Are you swayed by supermarket psychology?

Supermarkets have monitored our shopping habits for decades and designed stores to influence us – but is that all about to change?

Since they first appeared in our towns and cities, supermarkets have monitored our shopping habits and adapted their store layouts to our needs and desires.

This is not only to help us find what we need, but also to entice us to spend as much as possible in store.

For example, most classic supermarket layouts will use a good amount of floorspace around their entrances as a ‘decompression zone’, slowing customers down to ‘shopping speed’.

In the past, supermarkets would often also shepherd us through non-food aisles on our way to the essentials in the hope of turning us off-course, spreading popular items out around a store.

But convenience-style stores and the discounters appear to be changing all this. So what are the psychological tricks being deployed by newer supermarkets to draw us in and get us to spend?

Disruptor stores

Shoppers these days are increasingly time-poor – very few people will shop every aisle any more – and so demand greater convenience.

And supermarket layouts are changing to reflect that. Increasingly, simpler layouts direct shoppers to exactly where we want to be, without having to navigate large lobbies and non-food aisles.

With this rising demand for convenience, supermarkets are having to find new ways to try to sell us things we don’t necessarily want to buy.

‘Specials’ aisles

Have you been into an Aldi or a Lidl recently? You may have noticed the layouts are somewhat different from traditional supermarkets.

To begin with, they’re often smaller – this means little (if any) space is given over to a lobby. Instead, you’ll often be slowed down to ‘shopping speed’ by a 90-degree turn and automatic doors.

The other big feature of newer, discounter supermarkets are their ‘specials’ aisles. Usually placed in the middle of the store, and running its whole length, specials aisles encourage us to slow down and browse.

When we sent our mystery shopper into Aldi (along with other supermarkets), she slowed down considerably to browse the specials aisle and eventually returned there to buy a doormat (which was not on her shopping list).

Brand déjà vu

Have you had trouble finding your favourite brands in Aldi and Lidl? This should come as no surprise: in discounter stores, own-brands reign supreme.

By primarily stocking their own product lines, these supermarkets avoid entering contracts with big-name brands, saving them a lot of money.

Although you might not be able to find the brand you might normally buy, there may be a familiar feel to the own-brand products lining the shelves in these stores.

Guide: Which?’s best and worst supermarkets 2018

This is because disrupter stores tend to use more elaborate branding on their own products, which often looks similar to that of market-leading brands, although there’s no evidence they are directly copying.

Aldi’s Alcafe instant coffee is a good example of this. It’s similar to Nescafe’s branding, so we instinctively feel secure buying it, even if it’s unfamiliar.

Do you shop in newer, discounter stores like Aldi and Lidl? How do you find the experience compared to bigger supermarkets? Are you a sucker for the ‘specials’ aisles? Have you noticed any other psychological tricks deployed in your supermarket?

What's your favourite supermarket?

Waitrose (17%, 31 Votes)

Aldi (16%, 29 Votes)

Tesco (14%, 25 Votes)

Lidl (13%, 23 Votes)

Marks & Spencer (11%, 19 Votes)

Sainsburys (10%, 18 Votes)

Asda (9%, 16 Votes)

Morrisons (7%, 13 Votes)

The Co-op (3%, 5 Votes)

Iceland (1%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 180

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I choose where to shop according to my priorities. If I need to collect a routine prescription or need fuel for the car I go to Morrisons because they have a pharmacy and a filling station, and it is nearest. If it is general groceries I need I will usually to Tesco, which is a little further away but offers more choice.

If I’m going to my bank I will park in the Lidl car park, visit the bank and then call into Lidl. Recently I bought 12 jars of the usual brand of instant coffee but at two thirds of the price in Morrisons and Tesco.

Every month or so I go back to the large Tesco that I used before moving home. It always has products that are often not stocked locally throughout the year. Decent strong wholemeal flour is one example. When I’m there I take the opportunity to bulk buy non-perishable goods.

I do call in at Waitrose only I am passing and since I have not gone there with the usual (mental) shopping list I buy products that I probably would not have bought in the usual supermarkets plus plenty of fruit & veg. It’s a nicer environment. Maybe supermarket psychology has some effect there.

Never mind disrupter stores – where’s the best place to buy decent phasers?

They have been moved to aisle 17, top shelf. Two for the price of three this week.

Thanks wavechange, I hope they’ve been ethically sourced, see:


They’re easy to find – the sign on the aisle is for Tetryon and Phased polaron cannons. All on the middle shelf.

I shop for what I need and sometimes add things to the trolley on a whim, but only if I know I shall be using them and sometimes as a substitute to ‘first thoughts’. I usually know what I want, and shop for that, so supermarket hype tends to pass me by. I am sure I get hooked now and then, but not deliberately and the check-out receipt is usually around the amount I thought I was going to spend. My apple juice has been downsized and I can no longer buy my favourite yogurts, but finding no-one behind the fish and meat counters in a rival store and illogical shelving, makes me return to the original where logic seems to prevail.

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For a quick food shop, I like small supermarkets like Farmfoods, Iceland, Co-op and B&M .

I’ll also try Aldi and Lidl, but I know I’ll need enough time to browse all the “toys” in their “specials” aisles. Lidl (and Aldi?) can suffer from long check-out queues, but, as partial mitigation, my local Lidl’s now also have self service tills.

Trying to figure out whether or not specific products are sold in Aldi and Lidl and, if so, where they are, can be a bit of a pain. B&M stores can quite big, but tend to concentrate their food and cleaning products into a couple of aisles, so it is easy to resolve those same questions.

If I’m after a larger amount of stuff, I’ll most likely be in the car, so ease of access and parking also become significant factors. (If I’m doing my bit for the city and the planet by walking, proximity is usually also a key factor.)

For wider ranges of quality and choice, I do also like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Asda and Morrisons. Overall, I probably like Sainsbury’s a little bit more than the other four and I think Morrisons and Sainbury’s have the nicest cafes. (Many readers will already appreciate that the true purpose of Sainsbury’s is to keep oiks like me out of Waitrose.)

I think many find shopping a tiresome and stressful experience, especially if they have to do it under surveillance by their local purchasing approvals panel (i.e. spouse and/or kids). So I do also rate shops according to my personal “happy shopper index” and my “happy staff index”.

For the “happy shopper index”, the lowest scores seem to come from our largest Asda-Walmarts. It is rumoured that some family members might get lost for days in one of those, totally mesmerised and disorientated by the bewildering plethora of customer choices. Hence, I think visits to any such stores are best undertaken in the manner of mountain climbing expeditions, with a prior risk assessment, a planned route and set of objectives and search and rescue plans that can kick-in after a given time.

As a possible paradox, Asda seems to be close to the top on my “happy staff index”. I don’t know how they manage it, but I’m convinced that their management culture achieves it somehow.

For my “happy shopper index” there are two clear winners: Farmfoods and B&M, with but Iceland and even One Stop not too far behind. I think keen prices and ease of finding what you need are the key causal factors here.

There’s a Tesco at Bangor which is so large they issue maps and compasses with the trolleys. Interestingly it also has very, very wide aisles – which has often made me wonder whether they got the measurements wrong, and simply don’t have enough stuff to fill the store.

Ian, I know that one and like to visit it when I can.

On one visit, the staff in their cafe did a wonderful job of looking after us, when we arrived cold, tired, hungry and too stoopid to fend for ourselves, worn out after a busy day’s tourism on Anglesea.

An App was demonstrated on TV the other evening. You put your shopping list on your phone and, if the supermarket participates, the app takes you to all your chosen products by the quickest route. Trialled against someone without the app they arrived at the checkout at the same time. The app won then simply because it had recorded all the purchases and prices and payment at the till was therefore instant.

Since many stores give the means to record purchases and pay quickly this seemed a bit of a damp squib.

If supermarket psychology is designed to make you buy more than you planned I wonder if the app will be modified to take you past stuff they’d like you to buy?

Derek mentions ease of access and car parking. A new Aldi opened a few miles away and it is very well stocked, but the exit is very close to a busy roundabout and if you visit late in the afternoon it’s very difficult to get out of the car park. I have seen similar problems at other supermarkets and wonder how much thought was put in when planning supermarkets.

I don’t fancy using an app to guide me round a supermarket. That sounds like the ultimate tracker and I already know where the cookies are.

I do not touch the big stores the Tescos’, Asda etc they are not the cheap prices they try to make out. With Tesco as an example people get club card points which comes back a vouchers every so often but people are only getting back what they overplayed in product prices in the first place.

I don’t think very many people will truthfully be able to say they never get caught. I like the middle aisles at Aldi and Lidl, they sometimes have what I need at a fraction of the price elsewhere and not bad quality necessarily. (Although my Aldi Nespresso-compatible coffee machine, bought after ?Which said it made OK coffee, has started to leak, past the warranty stage – need to double check if it’s user error, but if not, I’m unlikely to buy another electrical appliance from Aldi. It’s a shame because the coffee is good, even if the dosing system (short or long coffee) is temperamental and you have to watch the machine as it makes the coffee.)

Like Wavechange I tend to shop where it’s convenient at the time and I tend to go most often to Tesco and Lidl. M&S and Waitrose remain an occasional treat, because they’re not near me (therefore thankfully leading me not to temptation) and because I need to watch the purse.

If we can broaden the topic of supermarket psychology, it seems that after some talk during the past year or two, Tesco is going to try to take on Aldi and Lidl, whose market share has been growing: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45488402

Sainsbury now has the Asda brand which seems a very wise move, even though many of us are not very happy about a behemoth even bigger than the Tesco empire. I expect that they will have more success by keeping the separate stores rather than having expensive and cheaper products.

I do hope the new Tesco stores branded ‘Jack’ will have nothing to do with loyalty cards, coupons and multi-buy offers.

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I’m certainly not happy about the merger, Duncan, though that’s mainly because I don’t think it’s a good idea for any company to have a major share of the market. My comments here were because of the benefits to a company of running stores catering for different customers.

I don’t know what is happening in the Sainsburys/Asda but what you say does not surprise me.

Sainsbury’s are paying Walmart nearly £3 billion in order to amalgamate with Asda. Walmart will have a 42% stake in the new corporation. Sainsbury’s will remain in control and Sainsbury’s Holborn head office will be the new HQ. The chairman, chief executive officer, and chief financial officer will all be Sainsbury’s people. So it is not an American take-over.

It all depends on regulatory approval. There is already over-capacity in the grocery sector and most superstores are under-trading; many are also in the wrong place for changing customer habits in consequence of the growth of Aldi and Lidl. It is almost certain, therefore, that there will be some rationalisation of stores, especially where their territories overlap, in addition to any transfers to other supermarket operators like Morrisons or Waitrose enforced by the competition authorities.

The opportunities for outright disposal are limited, however, because most supermarkets are stand-alone premises that do not lend themselves easily or economically to conversion to other forms of retail. Councils would be concerned about the loss of other types of store from the high street so there would be resistance to such moves. For the same reason there would be opposition to M&S taking over redundant supermarkets and refitting them for general merchandise with a food hall [and this might lead to an overprovision of car parking making the site uneconomical]. It would be unlikely that Tesco would be allowed to pick any up unless they gave something up in return. The superstores do not fit the Aldi and Lidl business model and are probably also a step too far for The Cooperative. Booths or other regional operators might be interested in some of the mid-size supermarkets but Sainsbury’s will wish to keep the prime locations. Tesco having already entered into a trading alliance with the French hypermarket group Carrefour takes one other potential bidder for surplus stores out of the frame. This integration could very difficult during the present trading climate and could take a long time.

The prospects for staff must be worrying but mainly in terms of redundancies rather than harmonising the conditions of service where a ‘no detriment’ policy for existing staff would possibly be negotiated. Over time though, pay and conditions would progressively respond to the local labour market which with one fewer big employer would be sure to harden.

Eventually the Morrisons & Safeway merger settled down – after some initial arrogance by Morrisons towards Safeway’s brand, products and personnel – but things are tougher now and the fall-out for consumers could be very serious. There will be an impact on the supply chain and although Sainsbury’s say their larger size and economies of scale will bring down prices, the reduction in competition will have a countervailing effect. This is a bold move by Sainsbury’s to engulf and devour Asda – but will it be just that bit too big and ultimately indigestible?

he UK’s competition watchdog has launched an investigation into the proposed Sainsbury’s-Asda merger. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will look into whether the deal will mean less consumer choice, higher prices or worse service.

The combined group would be the UK’s biggest retail chain with 2,800 stores and 31.4% of the grocery market. The CMA will also look at whether the merged company could use its size to squeeze the prices it pays suppliers.

Sainsbury’s and Asda – which has been owned by US retail giant Walmart since 1999 – are the second and third largest supermarkets in the UK.
Under the terms of the deal, Walmart would retain 42% of the combined business.

It seems that Sainsburys’, with a 58% stake, has not been “taken over by the Americans”. The biggest shareholder in Sainsburys, with a 22% holding, is Qatar Holdings LLC.

It will be interesting to see what the CMA decides. As regards market share, we’ve lived with a dominant player for many years – Tesco – who have 28% of the market. We didn’t seem to complain too much about that. Not very different from the 31.9% that Sainsbury’s/Asda will have if the merger is approved.

Going back to my original comment, is it worth companies having separate stores aimed at different sectors of the market? Would it make sense to have these near each other or to keep them well apart?

When we go to the US and rent a villa for the duration, Walmart is the first place we go ……. to buy a kettle.

Then we go to a supermarket. Walmart doesn’t have the greatest choice of food.

Pretty ropey, in fact, IME.

Walmart is rather stack em high, stack em cheap, so perhaps Sainsbury’s will turn Asda stores into something similar as competition for Lidl and Aldi.

It’s interesting to look at the market share of our supermarkets. Drag the slider at the bottom to see how the market share has changed in the past few years: https://www.kantarworldpanel.com/en/grocery-market-share/great-britain/

separate stores aimed at different sectors of the market?“. There is very detailed data that shows consumer wealth/type related to post code. This is used by supermarkets to decide whether an area is suitable for them, what size and type of stores would be appropriate, and what type of products they should sell.

I remember the forecasts of doom for supermarkets when Asda became an offshoot of Walmart. It was said that Walmart pretty much ruled America and with such clout it would sweep all before it. That didn’t happen. Lidle and Aldi have a well established place in the supermarket chain, but their predicted dominance has not happened yet. They might be seen less as cheap and second best now, but their model of smallish stores, unknown brands and different display techniques still hasn’t caught on to the extent that other supermarkets are closing because of them. They have been seen as a threat and have altered the thinking of the established market giants. Sainsbury once had the cachet of being close to the very top for quality. A mantle now given to Waitrose and M&S, along with a higher shopping bill for their customers. Asda with their pile it high and sell it cheap aisles are strange bedfellows for Sainsbury. Their customer base might be said to be different too. Will Sainsbury be influenced by the Asda model or will the reverse happen? What does Walmart get out of this and how will it influence the way Sainsbury stores look and run? True they don’t have overall control, but their slice of it is not without some influence.

The days of new superstores opening are past and these vast sheds don’t seem to reflect our changing habits of shopping for less, more often. I find them fascinating to visit now and then when I need some exercise, but wouldn’t trust them to sell me the specialist products, available in specialist shops. If it is accepted as a truth, that the existing supermarkets are unlikely to change much in their geography and catchment areas, they must compete, as always, for the existing trade. Some will be able to do this because they are the only ones around for miles, and many will have to continue to try and offer something better than their rival a few blocks away. Sainsbury/Asda will now have more trading space, but in the short term they will have the same support as before. That means that Tesco and Morrisons will still trade as before, unless things change.

Here in sunny Gloucester, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda are all represented by 1 or more large stores each. The most recent of those is the large Morrisons store in the “triangle” (the recently redeveloped space inside the railway junction).

The Sainsbury’s stores have recently been updated to include mini Argos branches. These can be used to “click and collect” a wider range of stuff than can be displayed on even a hypermarket floor.

Of the smaller supermarkets, Co-op, Aldi, Lidl, Iceland, Farmfoods and M&S are also all present, with a new Aldi nearing completion close to my house. About the only player not represented is Waitrose – one has to go to Cheltenham (or further afield) for one of those.

As Lidl showed when they recently completely demolished their store nearest to me, it is easy to re-purpose an existing supermarket site. (Lidl had acquired the old fire-station next door, so they replaced their old store with a bigger one.)

If the merger of Sainbury’s and Asda goes ahead, it should help with economies of scale that will help them to compete in an increasingly competitive market. I’m sure both Sainsbury’s and Asda each have some unique characteristics that would be best retained in any merger. For example, I currently find that Sainsbury’s has the best range of organic produce.

I ignore most of the bulk stuff inside the door as they are mostly things l just don’t buy.

If I am buying meat, I go straight there first as that will influence what veg will go with it. Fruit & veg tends to be the first thing you come to, but I usually go there last so delicate products don’t get buried and damaged in the trolley if doing a large shop. That section is very often near the self-checkouts or quieter tills anyway.

The one thing that has changed our shopping habits recently is steak. Sainsbury’s used to do really excellent aged ribeye and fillet at reasonable prices. But they have shrunk their sizes. The steaks are still in large packaging, but cut thinly to fill the tray. You can’t cook thin steak to be browned on the outside and still pink in the middle.

So now we do very little shopping in Sainsbury’s.