How to avoid supermarket rip-offs

Joseph Darby

Six dirty tricks used by supermarkets to make you spend more

Supermarkets are useful one-stop shops for a variety of goods. However, in case you weren’t already aware, the multi-billion-dollar NZ supermarket industry is dominated by two players, so we don’t have much choice when it comes to our weekly shop. The big two are:

  • Woolworths New Zealand (owner of Countdown and franchisor of the SuperValue and FreshChoice stores) and
  • Foodstuffs (the name behind New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square co-operatives)

The next time you’re in a supermarket, here are six dirty tricks to watch out for so more funds stay in your bank account:

1. Floor layouts that make you spend more

An incredible amount of time and effort goes into the layout of a supermarket. Supermarkets are organized to slow you down so that you’ll buy more. You might have noticed:

  • Supermarkets playing relaxing music to slow you down.
  • That healthy items like fruit and vegetables come first, so you’ll feel less guilty about putting not-so-healthy foods in your trolley later.
  • Staple products such as bread, milk and cheese are placed at the back of the store so you’ve got to do a full lap.
  • Common items are dispersed across the supermarket, which means you’ve got to wheel through more aisles.
  • More expensive products are often stacked at eye level.
  • Cross-merchandising, which is where complementary products are placed together to increase the sales of both. For example, how often have you decided to buy French Onion Soup and Reduced Cream after you’ve put potato chips in your trolley?
  • Keeping ‘impulse items’ and last minute ‘essentials’ at the tills. This could be snacks and lollies to encourage your kids to pester you for treats, or it could be high-margin items such as batteries, chewing gum and magazines.

2. Loss leaders

Supermarkets are infamous for their special offers.

Many stores lure customers with weekly headline specials on staples such as cereal, milk, and detergent, then raise prices on other goods to offset those “loss leaders.”

You’re unlikely to find the specials for less anywhere else. If you follow the flyers, you’ll see that staples go on sale at predictable intervals, so if you’re really committed you can stock-up and save.

3. Bogus specials

When walking around your supermarket aisles, it's likely you'll be inundated with lots of brightly coloured signs for 'top deals', 'lowest prices ever' or other not-to-be-missed deals.

While these are supposedly products that have been reduced to a cheaper price than normal, we recommend having a good look at what the original price of the item was. In fact, Consumer NZ’s head of research Jessica Wilson is on record as saying special offers were used so frequently that the claimed savings were questionable. Wilson says, "Effectively the special price is really the usual selling price so you're not getting a genuine saving."

4. Premium products which aren’t so premium

The fancy packaging of that 'high quality' bacon may convince you it's going to be much tastier, but once it’s cooked will you really be able to tell the difference?

The packaging on supermarket premium brands is designed to tempt you into parting with a few extra dollars and cents, but keep in mind that extra cash might just be used to cover the cost of the fancy packaging.

5. Online shopping

Online shopping is changing how supermarkets go about their business. Simply:

  • Tick the products you want,
  • Enter your credit card details, and
  • Either wait for your delivery or pick it up yourself.

A plus of online shopping is how easy it is to stick to a budget, and you have more time to weigh up any deals. However, a downside is that you can’t pick your own produce - you’ll have no guarantee you’re getting juicy or average melons.

Also watch out for the 'allow substitutes' options – if you check such a box it means the supermarket can change parts of your order if they've sold out and replace it with something else.

Some people report being given more expensive items as replacements and only being charged for the cheaper version, but some have reportedly thrown in a pricier replacement and charge you extra.

6. Making comparisons impossible

This might totally go against your best instincts, but while packaged goods do normally cost more than loose items, this isn't always the case.

Supermarkets rely on the fact you think this way and will often make comparing items confusing. This is particularly the case with fresh produce like fruit and veges. For example, packaged tomato’s may be priced by packs of six, while the price for loose ones will be displayed in kilograms.

Summary – and how you can avoid the rip-offs

Here’s a summary of common supermarket tricks, and what you can do to avoid them:

  1. Floor layouts that make you spend more – keep your visits short and to the point
  2. Loss leaders – if you can, stock up on great deals and avoid purchasing non-discounted items
  3. Bogus specials – check, check, and doublecheck!
  4. Premium products which aren’t premium – does your specialty bacon really taste different?
  5. Online shopping – keep your wits about you, and check supermarket policies in advance
  6. Impossible comparisons – if you’ve got time, calculate the difference and read the product small-print