/ 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,