Navigating the Grocery Store

Updated February 1, 2016

You probably don’t think much about grocery stores other than to make a weekly trip to buy food. Chances are, you’re hoping to get in and out of the store as fast as possible. But grocery stores are a big business: according to the Food Marketing Institute, grocery stores (or supermarkets, if you prefer), raked in almost $640 billion dollars in sales in 2014. More grocery store facts: Americans, on average, make 1.6 trips to the grocery store each week, and the typical grocery store carries almost 44,000 items.

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We’ve all been there: We go to the store to get some milk or a loaf of bread, and we come out with two bags of groceries that we had no intention of buying. Whether you buy your food at your local grocery store, a big box store like Costco, or a “natural” foods store like Whole Foods, it helps to know how you can get the most out of food shopping so that you can stay on budget and focus on your health at the same time. Use these tips to make the most of your food dollars and your time, as well:

Know the store’s layout. There’s definitely a rhyme and reason to how grocery stores position their food. Most Americans tend to push their cart in a counterclockwise pattern. The savvy store manager has figured this out and places eye-catching and alluring items at the front of the store, such as the produce section with its brightly colored fruits and vegetables (of course, special lighting helps to make them look even more attractive), or even the bakery section (it’s hard to say no to freshly baked muffins). Milk, eggs, and bread are often placed at the back of the store so that you need to pass by many other foods that you likely end up throwing into your cart. Once you figure out the store’s strategy, you can make a beeline for what you’re looking for and not get sidetracked. And what about shopping the perimeter? That’s old news. Again, grocery stores are on to dietitians telling folks to “shop the perimeter” because that’s where one will find the more healthful and less processed foods. Well, that’s not necessarily so. More processed and fatty, sugary foods have invaded that space, so buyer beware.

Learn about the shelves. That may sound strange, but foods are strategically placed on shelves. Your grocery store realizes, for example, that the bottom shelves are usually wasted on shoppers. No one really wants to literally stoop down to that level. For that reason, generic foods, store brands, and bulk items are often positioned there (hint: this may be a good place to find bargains). The middle shelf is the gold mind for the store: Here you’ll find leading brands and best sellers. Sugary cereals and snacks are usually place at kids’ eye-level. And the top shelves are likely to hold local and gourmet brands or less common foods.

Be aware of pricing. It’s well known that people fall for the old 99-cent trap time and time again. For example, a food priced at $2.99 seems like a steal compared to a similar item priced at $3.00. As a result, people may be more inclined to throw a few more of those “bargain-priced” items into their shopping cart, thus blowing their grocery budget for the week. And don’t fall for the “end caps,” either — foods placed at the end of the aisles are positioned to sell. Food manufacturers often pay top dollar to have their items, such as soda, placed there.

Go on a mission. You’ve probably heard the sage advice not to go food shopping when you’re hungry, and sage advice it is. Who can resist that bag of Doritos (on sale for $2.99, no doubt) or the Edy’s BOGO (buy one, get one free) ice cream when your stomach is growling? Counteract impulse buying due to hunger in two ways: First, don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. If you’re making a grocery store run after work, eat an apple or a handful of almonds before you go. Second, know what you’re aiming to buy and head to those items right when you enter the store. Don’t be waylaid into checking out the cheese section or whether the store now carries the latest brand of cereal. Remember, the store is trying to lure you into buying tasty and expensive treats that you really don’t need. And third, chew a piece of gum while you’re shopping. Gum-chewing has been shown to block cravings, according to researchers at Cornell University. They found, in particular, that sugarless mint-flavored gum works best.

Look out for the friendly old ladies bearing food samples. It’s hard to say no to a friendly woman doling out hummus spread on crackers or mini cupcakes. In fact, you may feel downright guilty passing her by. Her goal isn’t necessarily to get you to buy that hummus or cupcakes; it’s to lure you into the aisle right behind her by tricking your taste buds into buying more food, in general. Tip: It’s OK to say no. Give a friendly wave, say “no thank you,” or push your cart a little faster, if you need to. Keep moving, stay focused, and leave the store with a big sigh of relief: You made it!

What is orthorexia, and how does it relate to diabetes? Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and find out tomorrow from Type 2 veteran Martha Zimmer.

  • Do you think by knowing package labeling at a grocery store would decrease the incidence of diabetes in Chicago?