Grocery Stores Exposed: The Secrets Supermarkets Don’t Want You to Know

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Even though Americans cook 50 percent less than they did in the ’60s, frequent trips to the grocery store are still a fact of life. Although the trips may seem tedious, there’s plenty of cost-cutting secrets and clever tricks in play to get as much of your money as possible — so you better perk up and pay attention.

Supermarkets are as calculating and manipulative as casinos at grabbing your dollars. Don’t believe it? Check out these 30 secrets supermarkets don’t want you to know before heading out for your next grocery haul.

Shopping Carts Are Filthy

This one should come as no surprise. Shopping carts are available at every grocery store, and almost every shopper uses one on their trip. The really disturbing part is when you stop to think about just how dirty these things really must be. Spoiler alert — they’re filthy.

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Shopping carts are washed quite infrequently to cut costs, yet they’re handled daily by a lot of people. A study of 85 random shopping carts found that 50% carried E. coli, and 72% had coliform bacteria. Not gross enough for you? Don’t forget that carts carry diaper-clad babies, which is why there’s more saliva, bacteria and fecal matter on carts than public toilets.

Conveyor Belts on the Checkout Line Are Gross, Too

Most checkout lines have conveyor belts that take your items to the cashier. But the next time you place your items on the belt, you may want to rethink your strategy. Conveyor belts at the checkout line are rarely — if ever — cleaned properly. They’re made from petroleum-based PVC, which is porous and almost impossible to clean.

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A recent study by Michigan State University showed bacterial contamination on 100% of belts tested. Stores can scrub them daily, which is unlikely, but they can never get the porous belts fully clean. So, the next time you place your produce on a checkout belt, you might want to make sure the food isn’t actually touching the belt.

Checkout Aisles Are Tight So You Won’t Return Anything

Ever wonder why checkout aisles are so tight? They’re not trying to make room for more lines by using extra small aisles. (All the aisles are never open at the same time, anyway.) Stores design checkout aisles to be tight so you won’t have room to browse through your cart and second guess items.

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Because you’re kept in a tight squeeze, your inclination to put items back is reduced. At the same time, you’re bombarded with last minute grabs like candy and gossip magazines. These impulse buys wouldn’t usually end up in your cart, but that tight space makes it easier to make one last purchase.

Common Grocery Items May Be “Reconditioned”

Many major food distributors practice what’s known as “reconditioning” to cut their losses. Reconditioning occurs when distributors turn imperfect, mislabeled or contaminated foods into edible goods. FDA regulations permit reconditioning as long as the process renders food safe for consumption.

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One of the most common examples of food reconditioning is chocolate ice cream. When something goes wrong with a big batch of flavored ice cream, it can easily be mixed into a batch of chocolate. The chocolate flavor is stronger than other flavors, so no one can tell their ice cream was once a big, bad batch of blueberry.

Spraying Water on Produce Doesn’t Keep It Fresh

As you make your way over to the produce section, you probably notice the sprinkler system above the items. It’s not to keep the fruits and vegetables in tip-top shape. Store owners simply know customers are more likely to choose produce that appears freshly misted.

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But there’s more to the story. They also know that excess misting produces mold and rot at a faster pace, but that doesn’t bother them. If you’re planning on buying greens from your grocer, be sure you plan to use them fast. Also, give the greens a shake before putting them in the bag. That excess water also adds weight to your produce!

Fruits and Vegetables Are Also Filthy

Shopping carts and conveyor belts aren’t the only filthy things in grocery stores. If you’re picking up any fruits and vegetables to add to your cart, consider wiping them down first. After all, you weren’t the only person who touched those items today. Or yesterday. Or the day before.

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Produce isn’t always washed on shipping pallets before hitting the shelves. From kids to adults, your fellow shoppers could be carrying any number of germs. There are way too many factors that could lead to food contamination, so dig deep for your produce.

Produce Is Always Near the Entrance on Purpose

Grocery stores have an interesting set up when you think about it. The entrance is the only area with windows, and the rest of the store is pretty clinical. Did you ever notice that every grocery store has produce displayed right by the entrance?

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There’s a reason for that. Big grocery stores want to create a healthy vibe, so they entice you at the entrance with fruits and veggies. If you walked into a grocery store and were right in the middle of the diaper aisle, it would be a totally different experience.

The Middle Aisles Typically Lack Healthy Options

Fruits and vegetables are the first things you see when you enter a store, but produce doesn’t fill up your cart. The produce section accounts for only 10 percent of a supermarket’s sales. The middle aisles, which are full of less nutritious items, make up 26 percent of sales.

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If you’re trying to shop on the healthier side, stay on the perimeter of the grocery store. Spend the lion’s share of your time and money in the produce and refrigerated sections. Avoiding the middle aisles is usually a great way to avoid processed, unhealthy foods.

Dairy Is Always Toward the Back of the Store

Ever wonder why the dairy section always seems to be farthest from the entrance? There are two simple reasons behind this move. Everyday dairy products like milk and cheese are grocery essentials for most shoppers. Store owners know this and deliberately tuck the dairy section in back to get shoppers to walk through the whole store.

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At the same time, loading docks are positioned behind the dairy section’s refrigerators. That way, items can go straight into the refrigerators from the delivery trucks. This positioning reduces the risk of items getting too warm during stocking, while prompting shoppers to browse through the store.

Fish Are Regularly Mislabeled

Studies from nutritionists constantly tell people to add more fish to their diets. Although some fish do provide nutritional benefits, it can be a challenge to buy the fish you actually want. Mislabeling fish is a common practice in grocery stores across the country.

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In 2013, Oceana performed a nationwide seafood fraud investigation. In three years, scientists tested more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 stores. DNA testing determined 33 percent of the fish had inaccurate labels. Snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 percent, respectively). There’s definitely something fishy about that.

Expiration Dates Aren’t Taken Seriously

This is a rough one, but it’s true: Expiration dates don’t mean much to supermarkets. Potato chips and cheese will eventually go stale, of course, but meat and fish are trickier. These departments in supermarkets label items as they see fit. Expiration dates aren’t mandated by federal law, so most states don’t regulate labeling.

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If you’re trying to find honest labeling, look for shops that offer use-by labels. Sell-by labels let the store know how long they can keep a product on the shelf. Use-by labels let the shoppers know when it’s best to consume the items.

Coupon Books Don’t Always Offer Deals

A great way to save on groceries is to search for coupon books that offer the latest deals, but be careful when you do. The deals aren’t always what they appear to be at first glance. In fact, those newspaper inserts aren’t meant to save you money at all.

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The main goal of coupon books is to get you to buy items you don’t need by offering you deals. Here’s the real kicker: Some of the coupons aren’t even deals. In some cases, the price advertised is not a deal at all. The ad just lets you know the full price of an item in an alluring way.

They Can Stay Open Even If They Fail Inspections

It’s common knowledge that a restaurant shuts down immediately if it fails a health inspection, but that’s not the case for supermarkets. Grocery stores do get inspected, but they aren’t completely shut down if they fail their health inspection.

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Health departments are usually short-staffed and prioritize their testing to focus on local restaurants. There are measures you can take to see how clean your grocery store is. Some states post the scores of grocery stores’ health inspections online. It takes a little bit of research, but the results could provide you with some peace of mind — or just the opposite.

Expensive Items Are Always Placed at Eye-Level

So, now you know why produce is by the entrance, but what about the items in the aisles? Here’s where things get surprisingly competitive. You’re more likely to buy the items you see first, so the most expensive items are usually at eye-level.

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The less expensive items are the generic products that get placed at the top or bottom of the aisles. Generic brand items usually offer the same quality and taste as their name brand competitors. They’re just perceived as not as good because they’re cheaper and stored below eye-level.

Children’s Items Are Also Placed Strategically

Kids items follow the same rule of thumb. They get placed at eye-level for little ones to see immediately. The most expensive regular macaroni will be at your eye-level, but Spongebob macaroni will be a few rows below.

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It’s a sneaky trick to trigger your child’s impulses, so keep that in mind next time you go grocery shopping. You may want to avoid keeping your kids in shopping carts — they’re filthy, if you recall — but letting them walk around puts them at eye-level with products chosen to tempt them.

Promotional Displays Can Be Purchased

Did you ever notice those eye-catching displays at the end of grocery aisles? The store manager didn’t set them up because the product is amazing. Those big displays are set up in high traffic areas because they’re paid for by food brands.

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Thousands of dollars go into marketing products that are featured at the ends of aisles. It may not be a healthy or even delicious product, but it has a lot of money riding on its success. So, when you’re swinging around from one aisle to the next, think of those big displays as commercials to ignore.

Big-Name Brands Pay for Primo Real Estate

Big food manufacturers aren’t only paying for big displays at the ends of aisles. They’re also paying for the prime real estate in the aisles at eye-level. That’s right. Those name-brand items paid top dollar to be positioned at your eye-level.

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That’s still not the only thing they can pay for in the store. They can also pay to keep competitive brands away from your line of vision. The lesser-known, mostly local brands don’t have the same kind of money to pay, and their sales usually suffer.

Coupons in the Aisles Aren’t Always Deals

A good shopper is always on the hunt for a bargain, but beware. You already know that coupons from newspaper inserts may not offer actual deals. But there are other places where grocery stores offer coupons, like in the aisles. When you walk through the aisles, you may see tons of different “bargains” listed next to items.

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A “buy-one, get-one-half-off coupon” is just a tool to get you to buy the items you weren’t shopping for and may not need. Small discounts on name-brand goods may appear enticing as well, but check the off-brand item below. Discounted name-brand goods may still be more expensive than the full-priced, off-brand items.

Higher-Priced Items Are on the Right Side

Food manufacturers are always paying attention to consumers’ shopping habits. As Americans, we’re used to driving on the right side of the road. At the same time, we also tend to give more attention to the right side of the aisle.

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Big brands know this, and they pay to have their items on display at eye-level on the right side of the aisle. It may take some weekly reminders, but try to shop from left to right. Shopping against the flow of traffic may help your final total at the checkout line.

Colorful Packaging Makes Consumers Spend More

You already know that big-name brands sometimes pay to have their items placed at eye-level on the right side of the aisle. But they’re not done trying to get your attention yet. They also know that you’re drawn to bright, colorful packaging that captures your attention.

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Anything with more than three colors on its label costs more to produce, so look for items with less color to save. Also, be sure to avoid anything that has a nostalgic feel to it. That’s an effort to pull at your heartstrings and make you buy something that is priced way too high.

Background Music Plays a Role in Your Shopping

If you can train your eyes to dodge these tricks, then you can start thinking about your ears. That’s right. Grocery stores use background music to alter your shopping habits as well. In a study from the American Marketing Association, down-tempo music makes shoppers move more slowly.

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Slowing shoppers down means they have more time to look around and buy more products. So, the next time you’re in a grocery store, take your own headphones. Blasting up-tempo music will help you spend less time in the store.

Flower Shops Are Strategically Placed Too

They may not focus on anything edible, but flower departments are common fixtures in grocery stores. Grocery stores are aware of the demand for flowers, so they often place flower departments at the front of the grocery store. This helps encourage more impulse purchases at the start and end of your trip.

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You have plenty of free space in your cart — you haven’t started your checklist and put a dent in your budget yet — so why not buy some flowers? That’s what grocery stores hope will happen when you step inside. Your best bet is to keep the cart rolling — unless you’re actually on the hunt for flowers, of course.

A Quarter of Items Purchased Will Get Trashed

Almost 150,000 tons of expired food gets tossed out in U.S. households each day. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture after analyzing eight years of food data. That equals about 24 percent of average weekly grocery purchases.

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Grocery stores are fully aware of this and count on you to buy more products than you can use. The best way to avoid this is to go easy on bulk produce purchases. Fruits and vegetables are the quickest items to rot — especially considering the mist factor discussed above — so take only what you need for the short term.

Fresh Baked Goods Aren’t Baked In-House

One of the most delicious sections of grocery stores is often one big lie. More often than not, those “fresh” baked goods lining the shelves arrived frozen on a delivery truck. There are exceptions to the rule, but if you’re at the bakery counter, be sure to ask for the truth about the “freshly baked goods.”

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Grocery stores even try to sell the illusion by dressing their employees in aprons and chef’s hats. Watching an employee in a chef’s hat lay out doughnuts helps sell the idea that they’re made in-house. Sadly, the back of that “bakery” is likely a giant freezer.

The Buffet Section Isn’t Very Fresh

Stay away from the salad bar! Of course, it can be tempting to snack on some items while you’re shopping, but you may want to avoid chowing down. It’s a common practice for grocery stores to prepare meals for their buffet bars using food that has to be eaten fast because it’s technically expired or about to expire.

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There’s also the inconsistency of temperature to keep in mind. Cold foods need to stay chilled, and hot foods must stay hot to avoid bacteria growth and remain edible, but constant open exposure makes that difficult. Also, keep in mind other people have been spreading germs around those goodies before you.

The Freshest Items Are Always in the Back

When you’re shopping for dairy products, who hasn’t reached in the back of the fridge for the newest milk? Well, that same logic translates to almost every other item in the store. Products that are closest to expiration will almost always get put up front so someone will take them home.

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You don’t have to fall for buying nearly-expired items. Dig toward the back for the freshest loaf of bread or a carton of eggs. Use this trick for every item on your grocery list to avoid food waste.

Healthier Food Is Reserved for Wealthier Neighborhoods

If you’re looking for healthy food options, where you live may determine your odds of finding it. Research suggests stores in economically challenged areas have less access to healthy foods than stores in wealthier areas. The study also found that produce tends to be of poorer quality in low-income areas.

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If you live in a neighborhood with no healthy options, it makes it tough to change your diet for the better. It’s an ongoing crisis, particularly for low-income communities of color. Consumers are demanding healthier options, but stores aren’t reacting fast enough with solutions.

Free Sample Stands Are an Investment

Everyone loves paying a visit to the “free sample” stand. You know who else loves the free sample stand? Grocery stores. Not only do these stands get you interested in the product, but they encourage you to buy more food.

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Even the smell of food cooking contributes to your shopping habits. Yummy food smells and free samples increase your hunger, and shopping hungry is always a bad idea. You’re more inclined to make impulse purchases to curb your ever-growing appetite.

Scanners Can Make Pricing Errors — And They Do

Once you’ve paid for your items, be sure to check your receipt. Even if everything has a barcode, items may not always ring up correctly. Sometimes a sale isn’t honored, or the clerk may have charged you for the wrong produce. Mistakes happen, but uncorrected mistakes can add up!

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Depending on where you live, these mistakes can work in your favor. In Michigan, for example, if someone gets charged too much, they’re entitled to a discount. So, don’t leave without double-checking your receipt. You could save some extra cash!

Grocery Stores Are Just Like Casinos

Think about everything covered in this piece. Grocery stores lack windows, distract you with music and send you through a maze of colorful aisles. It’s kind of like a casino, right? That’s precisely the point.

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Grocery essentials are on the perimeter of the store, but you’re still enticed to go through the aisles to see all the colorful displays on your way to the products you need. There are temptations everywhere you look, all carefully designed to get your attention. If you think about grocery stores as casinos, you may be able to avoid some of their clever tactics to snatch your dollars.