The Sneaky Art of Getting Consumers to Spend More at the Supermarket

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Every shopper should know that when a grocery store advertises a “10 for $10” sale price, it’s usually not necessary to buy ten items in order to get them at $1 apiece. You could buy 7 for $7, or 2 for $2, or even 16 for $16 if you really wanted. But it’s very possible you’re spending more than you’d like—even if you don’t buy 10 items like the supermarket ad specifies.

First off, no matter if the sale rules require it or not, many shoppers do in fact wind up purchasing the number of items stated in the grocery store ad. Why? The power of suggestion is very, well, powerful.

A New York Times story about supermarket’s advertising in multiples quotes John T. Gourville, a Harvard Business School professor of marketing who specializes in studying pricing strategies. Gourville says that rules or no rules, consumers tend to follow the suggestions listed in brochures or store aisles:

“Many people buy the amount, or buy in increments, that are advertised — five for $5, they end up buying five boxes of couscous or whatever it happens to be,” he said.

So what, we’re just sheep, powerless to see through the marketing message, do the math, and make decisions for ourselves? Well, the experts say we sorta are just that.

(MORE: Supermarket Shift: 6 Innovations and Changes Affecting How You Buy Food, and How Much You Pay)

The goal in a “10 for $10” sale isn’t necessarily to get the shopper to buy 10 items. The goal is to get the shopper to buy more than he would have had there been no sale. And often, there isn’t one worthy of getting excited about: If the item is normally priced at $1.09, or even a flat $1, the result of a “10 for $10” sale should be a yawn from consumers. Instead, many consumers assume “10 for $10” equates to “fabulous deal,” and the filling up of the shopping cart commences.

A merchandising and marketing executive who works with supermarkets like Pathmark tells the Times:

“We look at the customer buying behavior, and that’s how we land on multiples — to get customers a little higher than their typical purchase rate.”

Another executive, for Supervalu, says that, within reason, the higher the multiple, the better (from the supermarket perspective). Promotions of 1 for $1 or even 5 for $5 just don’t generate as many sales as 10 for $10:

“When they see a 10 for $10, they’ll see that as a value, and they’ll stretch,” he said.

They’ll stretch by purchasing 10 of the items even though they’d otherwise buy four, or they’ll stretch by purchasing two of the items even though they didn’t really want any, but felt compelled to pick up a few because it seemed like a deal that couldn’t be passed up.

Interestingly enough, retailers are known to use maximum purchase limits similarly to the way they use these multiple-item promotions. When a deal says that, for instance, each shopper is limited to buying six 12-packs of soda on sale, the shopper gets the message that this is such an amazing deal that consumers would buy more if only the store would let them. Therefore, many consumers buy the maximum amount allowed.

Again, this is the power of suggestion at work, and it has little to do with whether the item’s sale price is good, or whether you, the consumer, actually wanted any of that soda at all.

Here’s a brilliant, simple piece of shopping advice from J.D.:

Avoid advertising. Advertising exists for one purpose: to get you to buy things. The more you limit your exposure to ads, the less you’ll be tempted to spend.

Follow that advice and you don’t have to worry about getting tricked by the numbers advertised with maximum power of suggestion by the supermarkets.

(MORE: And the Nation’s Favorite Low-Cost Grocery Store Is …)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.