/ Shopping

We investigate supermarket tactics that make you buy more


It’s no secret that when you visit a supermarket intending to buy a loaf of bread it’s easy to leave with three air fresheners and some asparagus instead. But you may not know why…

That’s why, with advanced motion-eye tracking technology, we followed supermarket shoppers’ subconscious eye movements to unlock the tactics supermarkets use to influence what you buy.

We used motion-eye tracking technology to record a visit to Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. We used two shoppers, who visited two of the supermarkets each, to carry out a mid-week shop.

The results were then analysed by three experts from Bournemouth University: Lesley Laver, demonstrator in psychology; Dr Jeff Bray, senior lecturer in retail consumer behaviour and Dr Charles McIntyre, senior lecturer in retail marketing.

The psychology of supermarkets

So what did we discover? Our shoppers were affected by shelf layout, store layout, special offers and even colour. In all the supermarkets the shoppers bought products that weren’t on their lists – sometimes buying almost twice as many products as they planned.

Here are three tactics we observed during our visits:

1. You read shelves from left to right and top to bottom so supermarkets put more profitable products, such as own-brand products, to the right or under the leading brand – where your eye will come to rest. In Asda the own-brand soya milk was to the right of the branded and in very similar packaging. Our shopper deliberated but chose the own brand.

2. You may find that products that are associated together can be located next to each other to encourage you to buy all of them. In Sainsbury’s the shopper wanted noodles and ended up with a whole meal deal.

3. Your peripheral vision notices movement, but not necessarily fixed signs. Asda had ‘wobbly signs’ advertising offers in the aisles – essentially a flag. Our shopper almost made it past the cheese offers, but was then drawn back by the motion.

You can watch our eye-tracking footage here, and Which? members can read the full supermarket psychology article in this month’s Which? Magazine.

What tactics have you noticed in supermarkets? Does having to go to the back for the bread drive you crazy? And do you find you always leave the supermarket with more than you intended?


We are advised to write a list and stick to it. That is not very helpful if it means that we walk past products that are genuinely on special offer and can be stored until needed – e.g. laundry detergent.

It is not unreasonable for supermarkets to encourage us to buy products that give them the largest profit margin. I would like to see Which? pushing them to discontinue unfair practices such as not giving unit prices on multi-buy products or presenting them in a way that prices cannot be readily compared – e.g. so many bananas for a pound compared with others priced per kg.

I’ve just been looking through the Implementing the Consumer Rights Directive 2011/83/EU guide on the government website, apart from it taking 3 years to implement. I’m hoping this line should be helpful with unit prices on multibuys.

“consumers should get clear information before they buy:”

although I bet the supermarkets will agree against it.

I fully agree with the last comment. Having decided to purchase tinned tomatoes in Tesco the price per weight comparison process came to a grinding halt when one brand was priced as “dry weight”. I went to Aldi instead!

I visited Waitrose today and was pleasantly surprised to notice an increase in the number of unit prices displayed on more and more of their products.

Beryl, I don’t know why you’re surprised, but showing the unit price ( for non promotional items) is mandatory requirement under the The Price Marking Order 2004 . Promotional items are left to the discretion of the supermarket as to whether they display such information (and I really wish that wasn’t the case)

William: There is definitely a need for supermarkets to be more compliant with their promotions and I couldn’t agree more; trouble is some of these promotions can be difficult to define since anything that contains packaging with a label or logo of some description could be classified as “promotional” and others, such as “promotional offers” are most likely to be transient, which makes it very difficult to legislate and supermarkets are inclined to take advantage of this. Which? will no doubt know more about this I would guess.

Apologies for the brevity of my last post due I presume to what I can only describe as my usual post supermarket fatigue! The unit prices I was referring to were those that come in an ever increasing package where you can find 3 identical items in 1 pack. I noticed that in Waitrose the price of each individual item in some of the packs containing 3 for example had been displayed in smaller print as well as the price of the whole pack, which made it much quicker and easier for me to determine whether it was cheaper to buy one single item or the whole pack of 3 [not being that savvy with mental arithmetic any more!]

Incidentally whilst browsing in the meat department I was quite unexpectedly approached by a very insistent elderly gentleman who very kindly guided me to where there were meat offers at half the price. I thanked him very much but did wonder at the time whether he was a member of Which? but he disappeared round a corner into the adjoining isle just as quickly as he appeared and sadly I never got to find out. In case anyone has doubts about the authenticity of this, I do still have the meat in the freezer complete with half price labels still intact!!!

What about the tactic of constantly moving stuff around to force the shopper to walk round more of the store. When the supermarkets would do better (admittedly for the consumer rather than the store) having their staff making sure prices are displayed against a) the right products and b) that they are prices there at all. And as Wavechange says on multi buy offers. You can tell not all multibuys are good value because the supermarket would put unit prices on them, the fact they don’t should start alarm bells.

Up until last year larger products would claim to be better value, not they just claim to be family size or the biggest. Cos they weren’t always better value, tut tut. And they got caught out. And if you ask the supermarket why the change in wording, they’ll blame the suppliers and if you ask the suppliers they blame the supermarkets, I know this cos I did.

Blake says:
28 April 2014

Interesting, please share the correspondence from the supermarkets to the suppliers and the responses back…shocking!

Different products and I asked questions of a supplier for one and the supermarket for another another, and they typically reply by phone so no correspondence to share,

My objective in supermarkets is to minimise the time that I spend shopping. I prepare a shopping list ordered according to the location of the items in the store then it’s a simple job of whipping round picking up the items as I pass. As a consequence, I rarely notice special offers unless they happen to apply to items that I intended to buy anyhow.

My main annoyances are the tendency to re-organise the location of items so that I have to search for them and BOGOFs. The first of these is particularly annoying because it lengthens the shopping time – if I can’t find the new location rapidly, I give up and buy the item elsewhere. BOGOFs are OK if they are for durable items, say like washing-up liquid, but are a turn off if they relate to perishable items such as food. I would much rather have BOAGIHP (buy one and get it half price). I suspect that if this system was used instead of BOGOF the number of sales would actually increase.

A BOGOF is a totally unacceptable practice that has no basis in commercial reality, other than to fool the consumer into believing they are getting a good deal, when compared to the inflated price changed for a single item.

Why should one shopper benefit from a lower unit price by buying two separately packaged items, when two shoppers each buying one item are charged more? As part of a basket of groceries, the handling costs and overheads for the supermarket are identical.

In trade and wholesale markets where self-service uncommon, prices are negotiable and goods are often delivered, discounts for quantity make sense, as part of a genuine reduction in distribution and handling costs can be shared with the customer for mutual advantage.

In retail markets, only consumers with spare disposable income benefit from these offers. If you are on a tight weekly budget, spending an extra £7 to get cheaper washing powder you won’t need until next month is simply beyond some people’s means.

I have seen some extreme examples of this, for example Tesco charging £1 for two cucumbers or 90 pence for one.

This is another “scam” by the supermarkets to get rid of surplus produce they would otherwise have to pay to dispose of themselves. Who realistically eats two cucumbers before one of them starts festering in its polythene wrap? A lot of this BOGOF food ends up in landfill that we as rate payers then pay again to dispose of. Not such a great bargain!

If everybody would refuse to buy fresh fruit and veg that has a BOGOF promotion (whether the over-priced single item or the 2 for 1 “deal”), the price for single items would come down and this nonsense would stop.

Come on Which? – time for a BOGOFF to BOGOF’s campaign! The amount of food being wasted by supermarket purchasing practices is costing everyone money, except the supermarkets themselves.

I did start a government epetition to ban the practice of BOGOFs on perishable goods. I think I got a whopping 12 votes. 🙁

Last year I also emailed the chairman of Tesco suggesting they stop doing them, as you can guess they didn’t like that idea. They’d rather spend millions revamping stores ( e.g. moving stuff around again).

There was a Lords committee that published something on BOGOFs a week or so ago, but I’m guessing nothing will happen.

Blake says:
28 April 2014

What does BOGOF mean?

BOGOF = Buy One Get One Free

We must express our indebtedness to Bournemouth University for these extraordinary insights into the mysteries of shopping [or retail consumer behaviour as we should call it from now on]. I now realise the vital role played in our everyday lives by Higher Education. Previously I had been a bit sceptical.

Linda P says:
17 April 2014

Visits to supermarkets wear me out. There is always one or two items on my list that I just cannot find and have to trail behind a member of staff who leads me to the opposite end of the store to the right aisle. Overhead notices can only be read when you are at or near that aisle. Is it not beyond the supermarket tech to put small screens at the end of aisles so you could just tap in the product you are trying to find and it comes up with the aisle number. Sugar – aisle 2 or eggs – aisle 9 . Such simple information would ease my temper and my tired legs – not to mention encouraging me to stay in the store actually putting things in the trolley instead of searching for them!


It’s not exactly brain-busting technology requiring advanced psycho-analytical techniques to take more of the stress out of supermarket shopping. I also think more products should be displayed in alphabetical order within their category [it works well for herbs and spices I notice, but they say it can’t be done for cumquats and lychees in the tinned fruit department]. Incidentally, my feet usually tell me when I’ve reached the sugar aisle and my nose is also useful for certain products. I thought the answer to wasting time in supermarkets was to have home delivery but that introduces additional annoyances.

If you watch the staff who fulfil the home delivery orders, they have a hand-held terminal that guides them through the store on the most efficient route. Two conclusions:

1) Stores are deliberately laid out to make retail shoppers travel more “shelf miles”, so there is more opportunity for them to pick up items they don’t want as they go.

2) It wouldn’t be hard to have a system where shoppers prepare their list of groceries, either at home in the internet, or on arrival in-store, and a pre-programmed self-scan terminal is handed out to guide the shopper. Or if the stores won’t provide the service for free, how about a smartphone app?

More excellent suggestions!

Perhaps I go shopping at the wrong time, but I’m afraid I have a gripe about the staff who are pushing big trolleys around picking home delivery orders: they seem to block the aisles ans stand around talking to each other as though no other customers existed!

“they have a hand-held terminal that guides them through the store on the most efficient route. ” My daughter is currently employed fulfilling online shopping orders. She scans the next item on her list to get the shelf no. and position down an aisle. She only does the items down “her” aisle the baskets (typical 6 at a time) then move on to the next aisle for the next person to fill.

Even she gets annoyed when the shelf stacker’s put things in the wrong place.

Blake says:
28 April 2014

William, does your daughter spend her day in one aisle only?

She does 4 hour shifts, and stays in the one aisle the whole time. She’s been working for getting on for 3 months and I think she;s only ever done 2 or 3 aisles.

She hates the booze isle and the soft drinks aisle, as too many people bulk buy so there’s alot of heavy lifting.

The reasoning behind a single isle being it reduces travel time and it means the pickers will be quicker finding the items.

Robert Thornberry says:
19 April 2014

M&S Saturday, 19th April 2014
Italian Chocolate assortment
300gm loose in a cellophane bag £3.00
600gm loose in a celluloid box £9.00

Have we all lost the ability to think for ourselves, or are we now programmed only to respond to the psychologically- derived tactics of supermarkets? The world abounds with “special offers” which often as not are far from special. We need to think of what we need, and not be tempted (unless you like being tempted of course).
Incidentally, Robert, you could think of the M&S cellophane-bagged chocs as being a sensible bargain, rather than as some may think, the boxed version being a rip- off. They are rather nice as choccies go.

It’s less a case of being unable to think for ourselves but rather that we are always susceptible to advertising in its various forms. If we were not susceptible then the whole advertising business would collapse overnight!

Michael. says:
22 April 2014

Some time ago I became aware of a confusing labelling method used in my local supermarket Morrisons. The first time it came to my notice was for a special offer on olive oil, Morrisons use red labels attached to shelves to highlight offers on goods. The offer was for 750ml of olive oil for the price of 500ml. Nowhere on the shelf was a bottle of 750ml capacity. The offer remained for several days, the length of the offer. Since then I have checked all red label special offers to which I have been attracted and on many occasions have found the same labelling tactic, no goods of the size or volume of the offer despite it being a nationally advertised promotion.
Is this a ploy or just a case of bad supply and ordering? I remain vigilant as it still continues and have made many aware of it.

I came across a similar apparent ploy in the local Lidl store. An advertisement for a range of special offers available on the following day appeared in the local evening newspaper. When I visited the following morning, not only could I not find the special offer items but all the shelves were full and there was no obvious place where the items could have been. This happened twice so I assumed that it was a standard ploy to get people to visit. I have to say that this was a few years ago and I have had no desire to visit this store ever since.

Tonyp – I have been told that Lidl have been doing this for years. I call in periodically to look at their hardware, some of which is very good value for money and some is mediocre at best. There is usually a list of offers posted on the glass doors, and this seems to bear little relation to their stock.

Timotring says:
25 April 2014

A few days ago, M&S were selling fresh soup for £2.50 or buy 2 and get one half price for total cost of £3.75, an apparent “saving” of £1.25. However the following day the soup was priced at £2.00 with no offer price for buying two. So presumably the “normal” price is £2.00 making the “saving” of the previous offer is just 25p. And presumably the “cost” to M&S of the offer was easily funded by those customers not wishing to buy two soups.

To be a savvy consumer these days one has to treat all offers with a great deal of caution.

Shopped today – some M&S soup is £2, some £2.50 at normal prices – depends on the flavour.

My chief complaint about Morrisons is that due to the supermarket aversion to empty shelves, at my local store they will put anything in an empty space without necessarily changing the labelling. So the particular flavour of shower gel that sells out is replaced by a different flavour that, as it happens, is not on special offer. True, if you read the small print you can see that the flavour displayed is not on special offer, but you are inclined to see the more eye-catching headline offer. I have pulled them up on this at the check-out more than once, but it still continues. This is a shame because in my view, Morrisons special offer prices are very competitive.

I’ve never understood why supermarkets put vegetables at the entrance to their stores. I buy vegetables TO ACCOMPANY meat or fish so until I have actually decided which of those to buy I do not know what vegetables to purchase to go with them. In a large supermarket this means retracing one’s steps to complete one’s shopping. This annoys me so much that I’m now voting with my feet and whenever possible I boycott their vegetables and buy my vegetables from the greengrocers opposite my favourite coffee shop where I treat myself after a supermarket shop!

They think it will convey the idea that their shop is full of fresh food. Its a marketing ploy. Although at my local Tesco the number of times you come across mouldy, damaged fruit and veg you really have to wonder.

They also put milk and eggs towards the back so you have to walk through the shop to get them increasing the chances of you making other non essential purchases.

Perhaps the supermarkets are helping by encouraging us to buy more vegetables and eat a more healthy diet.

I will carry on buying meat and fish to accompany my vegetables. 🙂

You may have a point Wavechange but for different reasons. Fresh fruit and veggies have a much shorter shelf life than most commodities, so supermarkets will be keen to shift them before they start to decompose. When you enter a supermarket you are feeling less weary than when you leave so you are more likely to go for the nice fresh grass greens, opulent oranges, rich reds and yummy yellows on display, not to mention the welcoming array and aroma of freshly cut flowers to greet your arrival and to lift your spending potential mood!

In contrast, don’t forget when you exit at the checkout that last minute high calorific quick energy fix sweet treat on display to tempt you and cheer you up when you may have been waiting in a long queue and feeling a little jaded, hungry and tired.

Thanks Beryl. I will try and pay more attention to the attractive displays of flowers, fruit and vegetables next time I drag myself along to the supermarket near where I live. Anything that can improve the experience of a visit to a supermarket is welcome.

We are usually buying our bread (and other foods) at TESCO.
In May, we noticed a significant difference in the size of the loaf with the loaf becoming really smaller. I didn’t have a whole loaf from April, but the bags clearly show the difference! (Photo 1).
Photo 2: Same price, different dates!
The bigger loaf (left) is from end of April. The smaller loaf (right) is from beginning of May. No indication about the weight of the loaf on the package, nor content!
Photo 3: Even the amount of grains that they use for the loaf reduced by at least 50%!
Every little helps, indeed. Helps the Supermarket make bigger benefits!

Photo 1: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=712264222169950
Photo 2: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=712264668836572
Photo 3: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=712264738836565

On the bottom of your receipt there’s a How did we do section and a web address for submitting comments, I suggest you ask Tesco to explain. I’d be interested in what they have to say.

The bag size difference my just be down to the fact that they’ve run out of larger bags. Just like my local Tesco seem to always manage to do with mushrooms bags.

And nice way of attaching photos photos to your post, shame there no easy way to attach photos to posts directly. as we all know a picture paints a thousand words.

Thank you so much William for your reply and suggestion.
I don’t think that it is because they run out of big bags. I looked at the bags, because when my husband brought the shopping items home, I noticed immediately the difference in size and aspect of the loaf. Unfortunately, the left-over from the previous loaf was not enough to compare, but the new loaf was clearly thinner and shorter, and the grains on the top were at least half the amount that it used to be.
There was no indication of the weight, or content on the bags, either. Just the label shown in the pictures. Even the bar-code is the same.

I will try to contact TESCO, though I have little hope. Thank you again! 🙂

Andra – I expect that these are 400g or 800g loaves and that this should have been shown on the shelf label.

These open packets constitute unwrapped bread, I believe. Here is a link to the law on the subject, which changed a few years ago: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2011/9780111513156

Dear wavechange,
The bread is not “unpacked”.
It is packed in the bags, with the price and code-bar on the label. You don’t pick the bread from the shelf and place it in a bag. It comes pre-packed in the bags.
So I think that obviously it should be the same.

Also, the new loaf was not half of the old one. Just about 20-30% smaller. Not a “multiple of 400” as it appears it’s stipulated in the law.

Today I bought a new loaf. The bag was as big as the “old one” in my pictures, but the bread was 370 grams.
It looks like they don’t respect any kind of standard.
The price was still 1.50 pounds. 🙂

Andra – Since these are not sealed bags, I believe it counts as unwrapped bread because the bag is not sealed. From the link I posted:

“Unwrapped Bread

6. (1) For the purposes of this article “unwrapped loaf of bread” means a loaf of bread which is not made up in advance ready for retail sale or wholesale in a securely closed container …”

I must have a look at what is on offer in my local Tesco.

In my experience Tesco do seem to struggle to match items with the correct label and shelf (and that’s assuming they have a label) could that be the issue?

Thank you so much both for your comments. They are very, very useful.
Yesterday we got another loaf, that was in size similar to the ones we were buying before the 1st of May. However, I noticed that it is now much fluffier, almost impossible to cut because of this, and even lighter than the one we bought two days ago (348 grams).
I took a picture : https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=714460205283685

It might be that either they had too many complains when they tried to reduce the size of the bread, and now they are in search of another “every little helps” method, or whoever prepares the dough and bakes the bread is rather unable to stick to the recipe.

I will have a look in the shop, if the label on the shelf has any indication about the size, weight or content of the breads. 🙂

I tend to bake my own bread, and I find the symptom you describe happens on a very fresh loaf, after its been left to set a few hours its much easier to cut. Just a thought. Although I wouldn’t put it passed Tesco, as indeed Every Little does Help them.

We checked today.
As suspected, there is no indication about this bread on the tag on the shelf either.
Nothing on the packaging either: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=715083551888017
New bread bought: 381 grams.
I doubt that any of these breads reach 400 grams.

Andra – I spotted the Six Grain Loaf on sale in Tesco and it was the only loaf that I could see that did not have a weight shown. When I pointed this out to the person in charge of the bakery he told me that this is one of a range of new products on sail in the store. He believed that it did comply with the law but immediately took the loaves off sale and said that he would check the legal position. I was very impressed, and this is not the first time I have found helpful people in my local Tesco store.

One difference was that your Tesco was selling the loaves in open packets whereas the bread I saw was in sealed transparent packaging, which will make it a wrapped product.

Tesco actually asked me for my opinions on my shopping experience the other day and took note of my comments on various aspects. I commented on the quality and colour of the bananas and changes were made immediately!

Thank you so much for your kind comments.
I think it might vary from shop to shop. We go to a very large TESCO in Maidstone and the staff might be much busier.
My new loaf(s) over the past few days are more similar to what they were before, though the bags are small.
The last loaf we bought is clearly smaller than the previous ones, but interestingly it weights 409 grams.
I will post a picture by the end of today. 🙂

Sainsbury’s do the best job of making you buy less in their stores.

They cut down on special diet food at Xmas (starts in October/November) so I have to go elsewhere until January.

Stopped going there for months sometimes years at a time when they stop doing brands that we use every day. They stopped doing Typhoo tea and our milk alternatives. They used to do a really good aged rib-eye steak that now gets bought elsewhere.

They instigated So Good milk alternatives disappearing from the market as they stocked so little of it that it was bought as soon as it hit the shelves and the shelf was not replenished for another week or 2. Tesco was also guilty on this occasion. So Good did not sell enough to make it a viable product to produce, and Tesco and Sainsbury did not sell enough of it to warrant selling it. So goodbye So Good Oat and Soya milks. We struggled for some time on milk alternatives until other products appeared.

Moving stuff around is a pet hate and this is something Sainsbury’s do too often. If I can’t find what I want, I do my next shop elsewhere. I have been known to put back the few things I have managed to find and go to a different supermarket instead. Tesco and Waitrose are not much further to go.

Sainsbury also took over our local Budgen store. Only been in there a few times and come out with nothing most of the time. The range on offer is nowhere near as good as Budgen probably because they push too much own-brand stuff at over-inflated prices. Is a choice of soup too much to ask? Budgen also used to stock a few really good locally made products. Lucky Co-op is down the road.

John says:
28 May 2014

The primeval hunter gatherer instincts obviously come into play when shopping because it is actually the same thing ignoring the safe but highly contrived environment.