The Best Way to Grocery Shop? Like a Conspiracy Theory Nut

Grocery stores are designed strategically to get you to buy lots of things that you don’t need. Here's how not to fall for it.
September 21, 2018, 6:00pm
Composite image; base image via Getty Images.

Welcome to the VICE Guide to Life, our imperfect advice on becoming an adult.

Coming into full adulthood is a process that requires you to actually learn how to do a lot of things you thought were pretty intuitive until you tried to do them yourself for the first time. There’s no shame in having to call your mom to walk you through opening a savings account or making a doctor’s appointment for the first time on your own. But the grocery store? You shouldn’t need any help figuring that out, right? This isn't your first time at this rodeo! (Heh heh heh.)


Cut to you, after your first “stocking up my own apartment” shopping trip, where you imagined you’d acquire all of the necessities for being a fully functional human being all on your own. And your bags are full of limited-edition Oreo flavors and energy drinks. Wait, what? How did that happen—you don’t even like energy drinks??? They got you, friend. They got you good.

Grocery stores, like all retail shopping experiences, are designed strategically to get you to buy lots of things that you not only don’t need—but never even considered before you set foot in the door. Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist who studies consumer behavior in retail spaces, wrote the seminal text on the phenomenon, called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. In it, he confirms what we’ve always suspected of ourselves: “fully 60 to 70 percent of purchases [in supermarkets] were unplanned,” he wrote, according to grocery industry studies. There are myriad tricks and traps that grocery store designers lay out for the unsuspecting shopper and, not to get too conspiracy-theory-sounding on you or anything, but there are some things you should know before you go. Here are some tips for how to navigate the grocery store without getting duped or unintentionally doubling your food budget.

The basics:

  • Stick to the Perimeter
  • Have a Plan
  • Don’t Be Afraid of the Butcher or Fishmonger
  • Resist the Temptation of Product Displays
  • Shop Smart with Produce
  • Scan the Whole Shelf, Not Just What’s In Front of You
  • If You Change Your Mind on Something, Give It to the Cashier
  • Just Freaking Ask An Employee If You Can’t Find Something

Stick to the Perimeter

If you imagine a grocery store as a big rectangle (no matter what shape your store is actually laid out in), all of the fresh and most perishable items are located around the outer edge of the rectangle. That’s where you’ll find produce, meats and fish, and eggs and dairy products, usually in that order. In the center of the store, the non-refrigerated aisles hold all of your more shelf-stable items, ranging from your pantry staples like beans and pasta and flour, to all the stuff you know you didn’t actually have on your list but will end up getting anyway, like Lucky Charms and frozen pizzas. If you’re trying to stick to a budget and not end up with four boxes of PopTarts that you definitely don’t need, sticking to the outer edges of the grocery store—or, at the very least, not in the cereal and/or cookie aisles, is your best plan of attack.

Have a Plan

Part of that plan should be eating something before you get in there. It’s a cliché for a reason—shopping on an empty stomach will lead to way more mac and cheese or frozen pizza purchases than you ever intended, because both your mind and stomach are conspiring against you in the pursuit of quick, cheap calories. (Ever passed by the bakery section when a fresh batch of muffins is coming out of the oven while your stomach growls? Yeah, good luck resisting that one.) The second step in a successful plan is to make a good ol’ fashioned list. Organize that list by section of the grocery store for maximum efficiency, and to be sure you don’t forget anything. Keep all of your produce and fresh proteins together, and the same with your dairy, dry goods, etc. But if you don’t quite have your shit together enough for a grocery list divided into subcategories, use the notes app on your phone at least. A little bit of forethought goes a long way.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Butcher or Fishmonger

We don’t live in an age where we have to take a ticket, get in line, and wait to be called by a big burly butcher in a blood-stained apron to order our preferred cuts of beef by weight. Most of the proteins we buy are sold in limited-weight packages on plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays, where we can pick them up without ever having to speak to another human if we don’t want to. But you should get to know the person behind the counter! Even in a big chain grocery store, they can be super helpful if you don’t know the difference between a hanger and a skirt steak, or what the hell to do with chicken necks. At the end of the day, they are still an employee of the grocery store and can provide at least a little bit of customer service when they’re not butchering chickens or weighing ground beef.

Resist the Temptation of Product Displays

Remember how we said it's best to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store if you want to avoid impulse buys? Again, the people who design grocery stores know that, too. And they want to get you into the center of the store with all of the higher profit items as quickly as possible. So flashy, end-of-aisle sale displays (called “endcaps”), like stacks of soda cartons or pyramids of Oreos, are their equivalent of using a brightly colored fishing lure to get you on the hook. Just because they’re visibly prominent doesn’t mean there’s any actual discount being offered. All they want is your attention. I know this sounds a little Big Brother-y, but it kind of is! Grocery retail is big business in the U.S., and with the rise of online grocery ordering through retailers like FreshDirect or Instacart, brick and mortar stores have to pull out all the tricks they have up their sleeves, and sucking you in with an abundant display of Kraft mac and cheese is definitely one of them.

Know Your Coupons and Sale Lingo

Every grocery store chain has different policies regarding coupons, if you’re using them, so you need to tap into your inner Extreme Couponer just a bit to make sure you’re actually getting the most for your money. The items advertised in the circular you pulled out of the newspaper or from your mailbox most of the time aren’t even actually on sale, but their photos are there just to get you thinking about it. Buy-one-get-one-free sales are only a bargain if you actually need two of that thing, but a true 50 percent off sale on food products is hard to find. If there are products you particularly love that you know you’d rather buy the name-brand version of, check the manufacturer’s website to see if they offer coupons that can be used in any store. Most of them can be sent straight to your email or your phone, so there’s not need to print anything. If you’re a loyal shopper at one chain of grocery stores, it doesn’t hurt to sign up for the discount card, or download the store app where you can find deals and collect “points” that can be redeemed later to save on your final grocery bill.

Shop Smart with Produce

Do some research before you get to the store on how to pick out the ripest produce if you’ve never bought a particular item before. Only buy as much as you think you need or will finish before it goes bad. And with that in mind, don’t be afraid of the idea of packaged produce. Are you shopping just for yourself? Odds are you’re not going to be able to finish a whole eight-pound watermelon. Buy the quartered section that’s wrapped in plastic wrap, and you’ll end up not throwing away as much of your money in the form of food waste. (If you’re morally opposed to single-use plastics, then you better really love watermelon.) Same with things like onions. If you’re shopping for one, a single onion, as opposed to the five-pound bag, might make more sense for you, and the price difference is negligible.

If your local grocery store uses water misters to keep the produce looking shiny and fresh (aesthetics are literally all those misters are good for—that produce was washed before it got to the store, trust us), try to pick the pieces that are farther back on the shelf or on the bottom of the pile where the water doesn’t reach. Wet produce, especially if it's not stored properly, will rot much faster. Also, the older produce is moved to the top of the pile when the store restocks the shelves, so the freshest stuff is on the bottom anyway.

Store Brands Are Your Friend

Generic or store brands in your average grocery store are often comparable in quality (if not the damn same thing) as the more expensive brand names for certain items. Unless you’ve got some weird loyalty to a brand or feel like you’ve just gotta have a certain label visible on your pantry shelves for the cred (if so—what kind of monster are you?), many an intrepid investigative reporter has uncovered the precise name-brand products that chains like Trader Joe’s simply slap their own packaging on.

Scan the Whole Shelf, Not Just What’s In Front of You

Again, the way items are arranged in a grocery store is not at all by accident. All of the most popular items—which is not to say the most inexpensive versions of those items—are stocked on the shelves at your eye level for convenience. Take a step back and assess from top to bottom what your options are. You might find a better deal if you buy something in bulk, but larger packs of things are generally stored on the bottom shelf and out of sight. (This is also why stores put kid’s favorite snacks at their eye level, so they will see them and nag their parents to put them in the cart. Do you want to fall for the same gimmick a six year-old does? Huh? Don’t be a punk.)

If You Change Your Mind on Something, Give It to the Cashier

This is both a common courtesy and a way to counteract the strategic ways that grocery stores try to prevent you from changing your mind at the last minute on an item. (You’re not just being fussy—checkout aisles are uncomfortably narrow and overcrowded for a reason. Store designers don’t want there to be a place for you to set something down that you’ve decided not to buy. They’d rather you give in to the awkward social dynamic between you and the cashier and just leave the item in your cart rather than making a fuss and potentially holding up the line to go put something back. Don’t be a puppet! Talk to the cashier like a normal human!) One of those employees is going to be responsible for re-shelving all of the unwanted items before the end of the day, and they’d much rather have them all in one place in the checkout aisle than have to hunt for out-of-place products in the wrong section because someone couldn’t be fucked to walk back to a previous aisle to return something. Be a decent human and just give it to the cashier!

Just Freaking Ask An Employee If You Can’t Find Something

There is nothing sillier than leaving a store frustrated because you couldn’t find a product you wanted or needed. Especially if it's an item you’ve never purchased before, why the hell would you know where every single item would be located in a store? Flag down an employee for help, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly they’ll be able to rattle off the exact aisle and shelf where your problem ingredient lives. I know the temptation to say “whatever, I’ll just go home and order it from FreshDirect” is strong, but getting over not-wanting-to-talk-to-anyone just long enough to ask a customer service person to provide a customer with service is not going to kill you.