Mellody Hobson: Savvy Shopping Secrets

There are tens of thousands of grocery stores and big-box retail outlets in this country (34,052 supermarkets at last count), but there are shared secrets among them all as it relates to getting shoppers to fill their carts.

Last year chain supermarkets generated sales of almost $500 billion. The largest, Wal-Mart, with 2,089 stores, had sales roughly under $100 billion.

What should you be on the lookout for next time you go shopping and what are the stores doing to get you to buy more?

Stores Strategically Place Items on Shelves

The average 5-year-old is about 3 feet, 6 inches tall. Retailers know this, and packaged-goods companies know this. Therefore, the items intended for child consumption are placed accordingly. For example, cereal, a child favorite, is strategically placed lower on store shelves or at cart level -- within reach of a child riding in a shopping cart. Additionally, the colors on the box (bright and almost always primary) as well as the eyes of the characters (purposely looking down) are intended to encourage young children to ask their parents to purchase the item.

Besides shelf placement, retailers are masterful at placing items strategically throughout their stores. Kohl's Department Store was the first big-box retailer to introduce the race-track setup for shopping. In essence, a shopper has to walk around the entire store to make a purchase and is forced to view almost everything before making it to the register.

The general concept behind this setup is the idea that the longer you are in the store and the more items and categories you view, the greater the likelihood you will buy more. Supermarkets are great at this as well. It is virtually impossible to walk into a supermarket and pick up a few common items by just going down one aisle. The maze is purposeful.

Stores also maximize the aisle ends with promotional items -- goods people normally do not have on their original shopping list -- as those are key traffic areas.

Finally, retailers are genius when it comes to pairing items or cross selling -- for example, most supermarkets place a number of salsa choices next to their tortilla chips.

Check-Out Lines Can Be a Consumer Killer

There is nowhere else in a store -- grocery or big-box retailer -- where you are more of a captive audience than in the check-out line.

According to News America Marketing, an average shopper waits in line for five to eight minutes at a supermarket. To capitalize on this wait time and turn it into sales, retailers are unapologetically direct with their placement of last-minute purchases.

Typically, the items placed around the check-out register are all small enough to fit in or on top of even the most packed shopping cart. Magazines are placed at the check-out line not to keep you informed while you wait but to encourage you to start reading an article and finish the magazine at home -- after you throw it in your cart or on the conveyor belt. Similarly, candy and gum line the aisle because they are easy last-minute impulse purchases that can be added to the conveyor belt.

Stores Have Mastered the Art of All Senses
They use music, sense of smell and even taste to get you to purchase additional items.

Both supermarkets and big-box retailers rely on smells and sounds to get you to purchase more. One of my favorite tricks is the placement of the bakery -- usually at the front of most supermarkets. The smell of fresh bread and other baked goods is a renowned way to appeal to hungry consumers or a surefire way to make customers hungry even if they are not. Even fresh flowers are strategically placed in supermarkets -- with the intent of luring customers into the store with their welcoming scent and bright colors.

Likewise, retailers are master disc jockey's when it comes to picking the right song for shoppers. The company that brought us the sleepy elevator Muzak now has designers -- called "audio architects" -- who match the music to the retailers a far cry from the boring instrumental symphonies of past. They try to pair the right music with the type of goods they are selling -- like top 40 hits for blue jeans.

When it comes to taste, supermarkets are infamous for offering "free" samples of their products. Statistics show that nearly 70 percent of shoppers will try an in-store sample and 37 percent of those shoppers will actually buy the item. Those are pretty good numbers for stores trying to make a sale.

Supermarkets Purposely Stock Larger That Look Like a Better Value
But this is not always the case.

It is a common myth that buying items in bulk sizes is cheaper. Buying bigger can actually mean a bigger price tag. With items such as peanut butter, toothpaste and ketchup, the family sizes often cost more per ounce than the smaller item.

Often, buying two smaller cans of a single product is cheaper than the big "value" size. Retailers love to make you think you are getting a bargain and know that it is an easy association for consumers to assume more is less.

Additionally, size comes into play off the shelves as well. Big-box retailers have gradually increased the size of the typical shopping cart significantly -- and Costco even has large, flat-bed carts for customers to push around its stores. The bigger the cart, the more you buy, and there is definitely a psychological effect to having a full shopping cart. If it takes longer to fill and there is more room, consumers are more likely to add that extra item, which they did not originally intend to purchase.

It Is Almost Impossible to Go to a Big Retailer and Just Buy One Thing

It is hard. And it is further proof that "big" is not always better. For example, the average shopper spent $60.34 per visit to Home Depot last quarter. That is a lot of nuts and bolts -- definitely more than what a typical shopper would purchase at a smaller store with less inventory and a smaller array of options.

Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management in Chicago ( is "Good Morning America's" personal finance expert.

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