Healthy eating begins with healthy food shopping. Along with that, you want to shop without breaking the bank, spending all day in the store or ending up with foods you don’t need. To do that, it helps to have a little insight into how marketers design supermarkets to influence your buying decisions. And, more important, how you can resist their siren songs.
Why supermarkets seem illogical
Ever get frustrated by the way a supermarket is laid out? Congratulations. That’s exactly what supermarket designers want. It’s all meant to make you linger longer. If you’re confused and can’t find what you want, you’ll spend more time searching for it. And that’s more time for you to happen upon special offers that aren’t really all that special, for you to be tempted by impulse buying, and for your children to convince you to buy them what they want. Mission accomplished—theirs, not yours.
Let’s demystify it a bit. The item that many people shop for most often is milk. Yet the dairy case is almost always in the corner of the store farthest from the entrance. Whether this is done for logistical reasons—refrigeration units are often located on the outer aisles and nearer to the loading docks, which are away from the front door—or as a marketing tactic is debatable. But either way, if you’re just running in for a quart of milk, you’ll have to walk the entire length of the store to get it. And it’s a rare shopper who can make that trek without buying something else.
Another “trick” may be poor signage. Have you ever looked up at the aisle signs and found them covered from view by sale signs? Or wondered why they list obscure items, instead of the ones most people are really trying to find? Sometimes cereal (a very popular purchase) is not listed on the signs over the cereal aisle. As with milk, since many shoppers will be looking for cereal in a typical shopping trip, if they have to search for it, they’ll have to walk down more aisles—and buy more—than they originally intended.
Be a focused shopper
First, find a store you like and stick with it. Once you know a store’s layout, you won’t have to rely on signs and you’ll be less tempted by “specials” you know you’ll see again. Keep in mind that a superstore may not be the best place to shop. Prices may not be lower, and even if they are, they may be offset by an increase in impulse buying. Superstores have aisle after aisle of items you wouldn’t normally buy at a grocery store, such as greeting cards, school supplies, even beach chairs (higher-profit stuff). While you will get more exercise, you will also likely spend more money.
Ideally, you should create weekly menus so you can shop once a week. Make a list—and stick to it. If you can, shop when stores are the least busy (weeknights between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. and weekends tend to be busiest, while Mondays and Tuesday less so). That way, you can get in and out with a minimum of wasted time—time spent standing in line staring at potential impulse purchases. Avoid Sundays if you can; besides being busy then, most stores receive no deliveries that day, so produce, bread and milk will not be the freshest.
How to navigate the supermarket
Many of the whole, unprocessed foods that should form the basis of your meals are found around the perimeter of the store. Plan to concentrate your shopping there.
When you enter a supermarket, you’re typically greeted by the produce section on one side. This is a great selling point, since fruits and vegetables look pretty and inviting. The produce section may be flanked by the bakery and deli departments. Savvy stores with in-house bakeries schedule their baking for the hours with the highest customer traffic, to tempt you with the smell of fresh breads and pastries. Some stores even make use of artificial “freshly baked” scents. The meat, poultry and fish counters usually line the back of the store, and the dairy case is typically in the far corner. Packaged breads may be along the far wall.
Don’t ignore the interior aisles, but be more discriminating about which ones you walk down. That’s where more processed foods and junk foods are found. Do shop the aisles that are stocked with beans, whole grains, canned fish and soups. And you will likely visit the pasta and cereal aisles on a regular basis. You’d do well to keep your blinders on, though, as you pass the frozen food cases—unless you are buying frozen fruits and vegetables and perhaps a few favorites like whole-grain toaster waffles for busy mornings, frozen veggie burgers or an occasional treat of low-fat or nonfat frozen yogurt or sorbet.
So here are your shopping orders:
- Go with a plan and a grocery list to a store you know.
- Resist any sales that are not for items you need.
- Don’t be distracted or misled by signs and come-ons.
- Circle the perimeter to concentrate on fresh, whole food choices.
- Visit interior aisles only for items on your list, and consider your choices carefully.
- Use the specific tips in our supermarket guide to help you make wiser decisions aisle by aisle.