How Supermarkets Fool You Into Buying More

Supermarkets and pricing

Supermarkets and pricing

I have to marvel at some of the psychological pricing “tricks” supermarkets use to “fool” us into buying more.

I was in the supermarket the other day, and I saw a 72 biscuit box of my favourite breakfast cereal, Weetabix, for £4.90. Now, since I don’t normally see boxes of that size (they normally come in smaller boxes of 24 biscuits), I assumed that was pretty decent value for money – and the average price in my local store for a smaller box was about £2, so I knew this was cheaper than my local store. (Locally, it would cost me £6 for the same number of biscuits).

But then I thought, “Wait… let me check”. So I looked at the price of the 24 biscuit boxes, and they were £1.50.

“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, puzzled. “I could buy 3 of these smaller boxes [3 x £1.50 = £4.50]… that would be the same number of biscuits as the larger box [£4.90], yet it would be cheaper!”

I grinned smugly to myself as I picked up 3 of the smaller boxes, thinking I had fooled the supermarket and saved myself 40 pence. (Oh, how wrong I was.)

I pointed this out to my brother, and then he said something that totally blew me away.

“So why are you buying 3 boxes?” he asked, casually.

At that moment, I suddenly realized how even more devilishly clever the supermarket was being. I had perceived that I was saving 40 pence by buying 3 individual boxes… but really, I was being “fooled” into buying 3 boxes when I didn’t need to!

At £1.50 for a box of 24 biscuits, I could just as easily have bought 1 or 2 of them… I didn’t need to buy all 3… but because I compared the price of 3 smaller boxes (£4.50) to the higher price of the larger 72 biscuit box (£4.90), I was “fooled” into thinking I’d be making a 40 pence saving by buying 3 smaller boxes!

“Fooled” is probably the wrong word, but the pricing was cleverly devised to get a poor sucker like myself to buy more than I might have done if the higher priced 72 biscuit box wasn’t there!

And if I hadn’t bothered calculating the values in my head, I may have ended up paying 40 pence more for the bigger box!

This highlights a principle I discussed in my report Pricing For Big Profits, that of the contrast principle – which shows that we often look at value in relative, rather than absolute terms.

It was this very principle that nearly led me to buy 3 boxes of Weetabix, when I didn’t really need to at all! I say “nearly”, because after I realized this, I put one of the boxes back… I didn’t need all 3!

I’d love to hear any stories like this that you might have. Please also feel free to share this post with your friends on Twitter.


  1. Very nice post Paul.

    I too have been a sucker for these clever price designs 😉

    And, I too marvel at how well the grocery stores know the buying behavior of their customers and capitalize on that knowledge.

  2. It’s even worse here in Canada, you have to be careful all the time because the supermarkets all full with all kind of traps. It’s awful, they don’t have any respect – they’re only after the money. The worst I’ve seen are the “specials” announced in advance. If you are not looking, you are SO paying the higher price instead of the lower announced price. I get to correct cashiers daily. I hate when someone has his hands in my pocket uninvited!

  3. I can not tell you how hard I laughed in disbelief and shock.

    That was a great story, and I just couldn’t step laughing at
    the irony of the way the supermarkets do that. I’ve done it
    before, but I never realized I did it until you pointed it out.

    These guys KNOW some people price shop, and they KNOW
    sometimes people compare apples to bigger apples. And
    they KNOW YOU know you THINK you will get the better
    deal if you get the lesser of the two.

    and for those who DON’T think the way you do…for those
    who simply ASSUME bigger is better, they get the bigger
    box and charge them a little more for the convenience of
    not having to carry three little boxes around.

    Costco is a good example of this pricing method.

    Nothing devious at all about this. It’s just damn good marketing.

    Still makes me laugh. Great Story :)

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