The Grocery Store Game Plan (Part 1)


It’s crazy to think that there is a method (and a madness!) to something as seemingly mindless as a grocery shopping trip. 

The fact of the matter is, a brick and mortar grocery store is strategically designed to lead shoppers along a predetermined route, encouraging them, along the way, to fill their carts with things they don’t need, maybe even didn’t particularly want, and then to exit the store having spent much more than was initially intended.

Grocery shopping is a trap!

But fear not my friends! 

I’m going to share the possible pitfalls that might entice you to spend or distract you from your main objective. No more leaving the store laden down with bags of stuff you didn’t want. No more shock and horror at that total on the bottom of your receipt. Grocery shopping is a necessary evil, yes, but I’ve got some fail-proof strategies to make it less precarious (and a bit less expensive!) 

Ready to go? Let’s start at the beginning: 

The grocery list.

(As it turns out, there are several different “styles” of list makers out there, and so the way you plan your grocery shopping trip isn’t going to necessarily match the way I plan mine. I go much more into detail about effective list making strategies here,but for the sake of walking you through the grocery shopping process, I’m just going to brush the surface on lists now.)

Experts agree that you do yourself no favors by neglecting to make a list before you go to the grocery store. (You know what they say about those who fail to plan, right?) 

Architect and supermarket designer Kevin Kelley, on the importance of a grocery list, “if you go in there without at a game plan, you’re at their mercy!” Yes, folks, it’s about to get real. In fact, anywhere from 60-70% of purchases made at the grocery store are unplanned.

Many experts are divided on the idea of coupons.Some say no, others say heck yes. I say? Coupons are great if you use them for products you already regularly buy or were intending to try. Otherwise they are a giant waste of money. Sure, you scored an awesome deal on that two-pack of air freshener, but what’s the point if you don’t regularly use air freshener in the first place? Even $2.00 spent on something you’ll never use is $2.00 wasted.

 Now, back to that list.No matter what your list making personality is I think it’s safe to assume that items you intend to purchase are going to be written on there. Your best bet is to group your items by department and store layout. This prevents running back and forth from the grocery aisles to the bakery to the meat department and back to the grocery aisles. 

You’ve got your list, your coupons, if you’re using any, and you’re ready to go…Not so fast! 

Timing is everything. 

The old saying is true. Don’t go to the grocery store hungry! 

This might seem crazy, but science has proven that we do not make rational purchases when we’re hungry. 

In a study presented in 2011, research participants were either injected with ghrelin, a hormone that increases hunger, or were given a placebo, and were asked to place bids on both edible and non-edible items. It was found that those with the higher levels of ghrelin were willing to pay more for food items and less for everything else. Hunger literally forced the hands (and wallets) of those affected by it. We are not rational beings when we are hungry. 

Another factor that can impact your shopping trip is the actual time and day of the week you decide to go. 

Many people agree that it’s best to shop during off hours; either later or earlier in the day. You’re less likely to get caught up in crowds, and shelves are probably going to be better stocked. (This might not always prove to work in your favor, however, in the instance of a killer sale on a product you want and a grocery trip timed for later in the day…) 

Day of the week can also matter. When does your store get their produce shipment in? The closer you shop to that day of the week will definitely impact how fresh your fruits and veggies are. (More on produce selection in Part III.)

One last bit of wisdom, for working parents, and those of school-aged children, especially, is, if possible, to go when your kids are in school or at daycare! You’ll save a boatload of money on impulse buys to either appease or bribe your brood, andyou’ll have the added bonus of a few blessed minutes of peace. Win-win. 

…although unrelated to timing, a few other factors to consider before heading to your intended shopping spot are as follows:

1.     Does this store match my value system? Does that matter to me?

2.     Do I care about customer service? How does the store treat its employees? (Trust me, happy employees equal superior customer service.) 

3.     If I choose to shop at a big-box, everything-under-one-roof store, will I be tempted into other purchases, outside of my grocery list? 

Okay we’ve got our list, our coupons, we know where we’re going and what time we’re going to shop. Let’s walk through those doors! 


You’ve almost fallen victim to Grocery Store Trap Number One. 

The “Counterclockwise Path of Purchases”

Think about your traditional grocery store. Do you think it’s a coincidence that most all grocery stores are laid out more or less the same? What’s the first thing you see once you cross the threshold? Produce department. Shiny bright displays of fruits and veggies. Maybe a sample stand or two.  What can you smell? Fresh flowers, bread baking, the rotisserie chickens cooking. Look around you. Notice a lack of windows or clocks? 

You have officially entered the twilight zone.

If you consider your usual path around the grocery store, it’s likely you walk in and head to the right, and proceed to travel around the perimeter, in a counterclockwise direction, occasionally leaving the course to head into the aisles. Is this you? If it is, you’re certainly not alone.   

…But why? 

Well, about 90% of the world is right handed, and travelling a counterclockwise path makes it easier for a right-handed shopper to put items into their carts or baskets. So you are drawn in and to the right with the enticing smells of the deli and bakery, the lovely sights of the floral and produce departments. 

Plus, ever heard the old nutrition advice to “shop the perimeter?” Well, it just so happens that not only are foods located on the outer rim fresher, as opposed to canned/frozen, etc, but they also generally cost more.

Another interesting thing to point out is that almost always, the dairy section is located at the far back of a grocery store. This is because nearly everyone entering the store to shop has an item from that department on their list. So you quite literally have keep your head down as you walk through the entirety of the store in order to get that half gallon of milk or dozen eggs and try to scoot out of there without a stray box of cereal or rogue Bonus Size! box of granola bars entering your basket. Eek! 

All is not lost, however. Keep this predetermined shopping path in mind and maybe go in the opposite direction. Or tackle your aisle-shopping first. 

This brings us to Grocery Store Trap Number Two

The Sample Lady (…or man…) 

Yeah that little old lady handing out cocktail wienies on a stick looks innocent. She might even remind you a little of your own grandma. What you don’t know is that she has been strategically placed at her sample table (conveniently located at the entrance to the aisles) not to entice you into whatever is on her tray, but to get you to buy more in general. 


Remember what I said above about the science behind ghrelin and our inability to shop reasonably when hungry? Well, guess what grandma’s sample stand is intended to do? 

That’s right. Start to get you hungry. Just a perfectly portioned nibble to get your salivary glands working and trick your body into thinking more is coming. Grandma doesn’t care that you go back for seconds and don’t buy the goods. She just wants you to begin the downward spiral into a cart full of impulse buys. 

So, what do you do? Either ignore the sample lady altogether or make sure you’ve eaten before you shop. Another option is to bring a bottle of water with you. Drinking water tricks your body into feeling full for a little while, and this will help deter you from spending. 

Congratulations! You’ve avoided the yellow brick road of deception, bypassed grandma and the sample table, and made into safely into the aisles. But you aren’t in the clear just yet…

Introducing Grocery Store Trap Number Three

Label Persuasion

When we purchase an item, there are so many deciding factors that subconsciously go into the selection of whatever ends up in your cart and cupboards, including personal identity, social values, religious laws, your personal value of the dollar, and whether you’re a registered voter or not. (Kidding about the last one. Kind of.) 

Think about it. Why do you intentionally choose or not choose a particular brand or product?

Are you a supporter of animal rights and welfare? Is that why you chose the free range eggs and grass fed beef? (I’m looking at myself here.) Do you identify with the mom in those Febreeze commercials whose teenager’s room smells like a sweaty sock? What about your husband, does he go for those “Primal” beef jerky sticks that conjure images of a caveman on the hunt? 

Here’s a glaringly obvious one. Look at all those sugar laden, colorful kids’ cereal boxes with cartoon characters on the front. Ever noticed how they’re strategically placed at the eye level of a child? Would you necessarily recognize (and relate to) the character on that box? Probably not. But then again, it’s not in a position to grab your attention. (Another reason why shopping without kids can be ideal…)

So ask yourself a question the next time you go to choose a product.“Am I buying this because it’s on my list and I need it? Or am I trying to purchase a feeling?”

Also, look up and down when shopping the aisles, as products located here traditionally are less expensive, and just avoid the endcaps altogether. Manufacturers pay extra for prime shelf real-estate. So, chances are good you won’t be getting a good deal just because something is placed in a special spot. 

To Recap:

Ø  Always, always make (and bring) a list. 

Ø  Take advantage of coupons if you were planning to purchase the item anyway

Ø  Be conscientious of what day and time you decide to go shopping

Ø  Do not go shopping hungry!

Ø  Stick to your list and shop the aisles first if possible. 

Ø  Question your decision before you put something in your cart

And there you have it! Everything you need to equip yourself for the potential traps and pitfalls of a traditional in-store shopping experience! Stay tuned for Parts II and III, where we’ll talk about how to save money, time and your sanity! We will also break the store down by department, in order to ensure you get the best value and highest quality product possible. 

See you soon!