Menopause App

Digital Packs Banner Digital Packs Banner

Mood and Mind

5 ways supermarkets make you spend more money


Supermarkets use sneaky tricks to make you spend more money. Commercial psychologist Phillip Adcock and author of Shoppology: The Science of Supermarket Shopping & a Strategy to Spend Less and Get More reveals 

Why is it so hard to save money?

Because money isn’t emotional that’s why! There is a 2-pronged attack on your hard-earnt cash: Firstly, your own brain doesn’t fully appreciate money (it only values the things it can do for you) and secondly, those retailers and brands that part you from it really do appreciate and want it.

First the science: One part of our brains is more advanced and developed than in any other animal: the neocortex; specifically the pre-frontal cortex or PFC. This part of the brain analyses our thoughts and regulates our behaviour. It’s the part of the brain that helps us decide what’s morally and socially right or wrong. The PFC also regulates the influence of powerful instincts and emotions generated by older, more developed parts of the brain.

your brain doesn’t fully appreciate money, it only values the things money can do for you

One part of the older more developed brain is the insula. Scientists largely ignored this part of the brain for a long time, but recently it has taken its rightful place at the centre of why we humans feel human. Whereas the PFC is all about reason, the insula processes and responds to emotions and instincts.

The insula receives information from the body and then instructs other parts of the brain, mostly those involved in decision-making such as the PFC, to respond accordingly.

The insula tells the PFC what to do, but, like a petulant teenager rebelling against his parents, the PFC doesn’t like being told what to do.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex governs your shopping habits

So, what are the ramifications of having two controlling parts of our brains that rarely agree when it comes to decision-making? First, the older and more established insula usually wins. We prefer immediate gratification. What the insula wants, it wants now. The PFC then shifts into overdrive, trying to negotiate a more considered and acceptable course of behaviour. So the first piece of advice is, when you have an overwhelming urge to buy something, just think twice! Give your PFC time to come up with reasons and a rationale for perhaps not buying.

Imagine you’re in a store and you see a pair of must-have shoes. The insula, which operates in the present and rarely thinks about next week, tomorrow, or even later today, is responsible for the ‘must have’ part of the urge. It urges you to pull out your wallet and throw caution to the wind. At the same time, the PFC, which does think ahead, is screaming, ‘No, no, no!’ It rationalises that you’ll have to put the shoes on your credit card and pay an exorbitant interest fee, and you already have more shoes than you need. This heated brain argument is a battle between emotion and reason, and unfortunately emotions win most of the time.

Therefore, we have an inner mental battle between emotion (the stuff you crave) and reason (the money you buy it with). It’s not the money itself that will give you financial security. From an emotional point of view, money is worthless until you spend it.

Here then examples of how retailers and brands target your mind in an attempt to get you spending more and saving less. As well as some psychologically proven ways to ‘fight-off’ this persuasion.

  1. Familiarity breeds desire

Did you know that the likelihood of you buying something is significantly influenced by how easy or hard it is to think about the item itself? And that you are much more likely to buy things that are easy to think about rather than items that are harder to consider – this is known as processing fluency.

Processing fluency literally changes how we think about things and guides our decision making. What’s more, most of us have little or no awareness of the hold it has over us. Typically it is at work in any situation where we consider information (any form of mental input). The full extent of its potential to mislead can be illustrated by the fact that we often misattribute the sensation of ease or difficulty of mentally processing something to actually liking or disliking the thing itself. To give a specific example, the more times we as shoppers are exposed to certain products the more quickly we can mentally process them and subsequently, but mistakenly, the more we like them. Think secondary sitings and gondola ends here. Just because you’ve seen it many times, doesn’t mean you should want it more.

Fight back:  Ask yourself why you really want the item, and why is that, keep asking until you get to a heartfelt emotional reason. And then, only then decide if you still ‘must have it’. This mechanism helps you employ more of your brain and so come to a more thought-through decision.

Customer in supermarket

2. Priming

It’s no surprise that shopping behaviour can be altered by the information we’re exposed to in our day to day environment. The way our behaviour is altered is through priming and suggestion. One study by Strahan, Spencer and Zanna (2002), showed that subliminally priming people who were thirsty by reinforcing their thirst through words presented to them during an exercise made them drink significantly more water afterwards compared with people who were thirsty and had not been primed.

In summary, the simple act of seeing advertisements primes us and pushes us towards purchasing the items advertised. Be warned, just because you have relaxed during the ad break in Corrie, your brain is still avidly watching the screen.

Fight back: Once again, challenge your own mind: Why should you buy the item and why should you leave it on the shelf. Get your brain to discuss this… …with itself.


Some special offers are presented as exclusive and available for a limited time only. In-store messages tell us things like ‘When it’s gone, it’s gone’ and ‘offer ends Tuesday’. These references to ‘time limits’ and potentially ‘missing out’ switch our shopping mindset from ‘gaining something new’ to ‘fear of losing out on a great deal’. Most of us will have at some time made impulse purchases due to a ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO).

From a psychological perspective, humans are naturally averse to loss. Kahneman and Tversky (1979) demonstrated that humans take more risks when a scenario is presented in a negative frame (fear of losing out on something). Therefore, the way deals are presented to us can lead us to take risks and buy items even if we are uncertain whether we really want it. In summary, we would rather buy something than risk leaving it on the shelf and potentially missing out.

Fight back: An effective defence against this FOMO is to hand the decision over to fate: That is agree with your brain to come back again tomorrow and if a) the item is still there and b) you still want it, then go ahead and make the purchase.

4. Psychological anchoring

It’s not the price of your product that determines how many people buy it, but more the prices of the products adjacent to it. It all has to do with a psychological principle called anchoring. Essentially, the first number you see colours any numbers that come after it.

For example, if you see a display of champagne in the supermarket, with each bottle priced at £10.99, then an alternative on offer for £25.49 is perceived as very expensive. But if you put the £25.49 bottles next to some £50 bottles, then they look much better value.

Anchoring plays an important role in how we understand and assess the prices of products in stores and online.

Fight back: Psychological anchoring is particularly prevalent in relation to goods with which we are either unfamiliar or that we don’t consider the price as part of the purchase decision hierarchy. So do your research before shopping.

5. Mimetic desire (aka ‘I want what she’s got’)

Supermarkets play on our need to have what others want

We’ve all seen it, a child picks up a toy that no one else is playing with and suddenly all the other children want that same toy. Even if there are other toys available, the other children want that one.

Scientists call this mimetic desire: A person desiring what another person already has. This mimetic desire isn’t limited to children, we all experience it many, many times. In fact lots of brands rely on it. From a scientific point of view, the fact is that brands look more appealing once we see other people using them. And this is more than a jealousy thing, just wanting what others have. This is all about valuing something because others value it.

There are two different processes in the brain responsible for this form of product desire. Firstly, the mirror neuron system: These neurons, discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti recently as 1985, respond when you see someone else performing an action, such as drinking Coke. We call it the mirror neuron system because it mirrors the behaviour of someone else, as if we were doing the same action our self. In summary, when you see somebody drinking Coke, your brain automatically imagines you doing the same thing.

The second system is our internal valuation system. This helps us attribute value to specific things around us. If it is good enough for them, then I want it too. Or more accurately, because they want it then I want it more.

In summary, when the mirror neuron system and valuation system come together in our minds, we generate strong mimetic desire.

Fight back: When tempted in-store, ask yourself, why the temptation. Is it just because you see a carefully crafted image of somebody else already consuming? If so, imagine the sweaty and overweight marketing director of that brand stuffing the product into his or her face: Still want it as much now?

The constant exposure to deals, combined with the ever-increasing number of TV programmes and press articles (like this one!) about ‘savvy shopping’ make us believe that everyone else is a smart shopper. As a result, we perceive that it is our ‘duty’ to get smart too. In the midst of all this hype, we, as shoppers and consumers, have become the perfect social proof for each other to shop for all these ‘great deals. Research suggests that our behaviour is strongly influenced by social proof. The more people jump on the bandwagon, the stronger the social proof for savvy shopping becomes.

But the conclusion here is that savvy shopping is still shopping: still buying stuff. So the continuous referencing to shopping smarter still results in shopping, spending, buying, call it what you will.

A lot of the time, the savviest shopper of all is the one that doesn’t shop!

Phillip Adcock is a commercial psychologist and author of Shoppology: The Science of Supermarket Shopping & a Strategy to Spend Less and Get More and Master Your Brain: Training Your Mind for Success in Life Both available on Amazon.  


How to choose a protein powder for weight loss

Best natural cures for headaches

5 signs of overtraining to never ignore 


Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.

More Healthista Content