I thought I would muse on some of the daily illusions you encounter at the supermarket. Grocery stores are experts in studying human behavior, and the little adjustments they make have a long-term effect on sales.

Some supermarkets are organized so that the goods they want you to purchase are on the right side of the aisle, so that you reach for them with your dominant hand (for most people). We tend to look to the right and generally favor the right side, which is why many entire stores are designed to cater to this tendency. Next time you find yourself involuntarily turning right as you walk in, and circling through the store on the right, think about how we drive on the right side of the road.

Aisle placement is key: the premium expensive goods are usually at eye-level. Bulk food tends to be at the bottom of the shelf. And then there’s the “kid-level” – eye-popping, colorful, sugary food that can easily be spotted by your excited ten-year old. There’s some debate about this, but many stores place the goods they want you to purchase at the end of the aisles where they will more easily be noticed. (Economist)

Where are the dairy products and other staples? They’re in the back of the store, beyond the myriad products you have to walk through first. Ever notice that the pharmacy is in the back of your local drugstore? Same idea. Supermarket owners are hoping that as you make your way towards that carton of milk, you’ll drop countless other products into your shopping cart.

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And let’s talk about that invention of 1937. How better to get shoppers to purchase more than to give them a mobile, high-capacity cart? Oklahoman Sylvan Goldman created the “folding basket carrier” to make shopping easier and encourage customers to buy more. Goldman and his brother owned half of the Piggly Wiggly’s in Oklahoma City.

All of these tricks fall under the umbrella of the “illusion of free choice,” one of a magician’s most closely guarded secrets. The principle is such that if you are given the ability to choose, you believe you have complete control over the situation (or trick). Sure, no one is coercing you to put those cinnamon buns in your basket, but are you really navigating through the grocery store without influence?

Happy solving!

David