Supermarket tricks: spot marketing traps and save

Article published 31 July 2023

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A marketing expert's tips on how to spot a bad deal and cut down costs

How to beat supermarket tricks and save

“EVER walk into the supermarket to buy milk – and come out with a trolley full of stuff you didn’t even know you needed?”, asks Professor Nitika Garg from the University of NSW’s School of Marketing in a recent media release.

If your answer to that question is ‘Yes!’, you are obviously not on a full rate Age Pension without much or anything in the way of extra income. But alright, Professor Garg is really asking whether you sometimes buy more at the supermarket than you had planned. Most people would admit they had.

In her media release, Professor Garg explains some of the tricks supermarkets play on their customers to seduce them into buying more stuff than they need.

Professor Garg has some good comments – tips really – on how to avoid being tricked into buying more than you need when you do your groceries.

Multi-store shopping

“With the cost-of-living crisis soaring, it would be in the interest of consumers to shop at different stores to get the best deals, if they have the time”, Professor Garg says.

“You could go to one shop to get your meat and then another to get your veggies because you as a consumer have taken the time to research and know where the best and cheapest products are”.

But supermarkets know that only a few customers will do this. And among those few customers, some might not keep it up.

This is where the trickery starts.

“Supermarkets give consumers ‘cues’, which might make it look like a product is on a deal”, says Professor Garg.

Loss leaders

Supermarkets will lure you into their shop with an attractive deal and bet on you doing the rest of your shop there.

“What all supermarkets are guilty of is advertising some products which are desirable to the consumer and where they are competitive, and most supermarkets won’t make any profit on the item – these are known as loss leaders”, Professor Garg says.

“If you’re going in and you’re saying oh, they’re selling bananas at $1.99 per kg and Coles is selling it at $4.00 per kg, suddenly that’s a great deal. But the thing is, how many of us are going to get the bananas from one store and then get the other things from Coles?

Supermarket layout and music

At the front of the shop, you will find the loss-leader products, but staple foods such as milk and bread far away from each other, usually at the back of the shop. So, the customer is manipulated into the supermarket and made to walk all the way through it.

While you as a customer go on your supermarket walk-about, you will most likely hear relaxed, slow-paced music. This is not a coincidence. Supermarkets choose calming music to create an atmosphere which encourages customers to stay longer and buy more.

Locked-in deals

These are commonly identified by bright red labels on items and typically present a capped price until a specified date. You may be misled into believing that purchasing the item before the deadline offers greater cost-effectiveness due to the deal.

But the price of the locked-in deals is often the same as the original price of the item, so do the math before buying.

Store deals

The ‘buy two, get one free’ deals and similar schemes may initially appear as an excellent opportunity to save money if it’s an item you buy regularly.

But if  these three items have a short expiry date, make sure it’s realistic that you will use all three items by the use-by date.

Then there’s the ‘buy two for $10.00’ deal. Sometimes this offers a discount but sometimes it doesn’t, in which case the so-called deal is not a deal at all but an attempt to make you buy two items at their regular price.

Unit pricing

Finally, unit pricing is actually not a marketing trick but an anti-marketing trick. By law, where groceries are sold by weight, length or number, the price label must also show the price by the relevant standard unit of measurement.

The consumer protection regulator ACCC list the following examples on its website:

Price labelling for meat must show the price per kilogram as well as the check-out price. Laundry detergent must show the price per litre.  Avocados price labelling must include the price per avocado.

Make sure that you compare the unit prices rather than just the check-out prices to beat supermarket tricks aimed at getting you to spend more.

More tips

Consumer advocate CHOICE shares more tips on how to save, and we share information on NSW energy rebates here.

For more information please email our media contact at

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