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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How Shopping In-Person Skews Your Perception of What Your Store Carries (and what you can do to change that)

How grocery stores stock their shelve and bins is part common sense and part marketing. The common sense part is rather obvious. Stores keep all of their frozen foods in one central location while all of their fresh foods in another. Foods are grouped by their storage needs. 

The other part for how stores stock their shelves and bins is marketing. You think you are seeing the complete selection the store has to offer, but marketing tricks us into primarily seeing the products that stores and manufacturers want us to see. The slogan "eye level is buy level" aptly applies here. Big brands negotiate with stores in order to garner that desirable eye-level portion for all of the departments. This section is highly visible to both shoppers and children riding in their parent's cart. It makes sense that products with the largest profit margin (and lowest value for dollar spent) would be placed in this section.

Shoppers typically view products on their own eye level and then down from there. Most of us know that the bottom shelf is typically the "value" section. This is where stores place house brand versions of less-flashy products. Think about dry cereal. Kellogg's Cornflakes are often placed just below eye level because this cereal doesn't have as much appeal to children and it has a rather slim profit margin compared to other cereals in the Kellogg's line. To find a house brand of cornflakes (the value alternative to more expensive dry breakfast cereals), one often looks on the bottom shelf. The bottom shelf is also where oversize bags of flour, sugar, rice, and beans are located -- all items considered "value" by savvy shoppers.

According to Small Business Trends, the top shelf is the least visible shelf to consumers. Grocery stores take one of two tacks on how to use this space. Some stores use the top shelf for the most expensive gourmet items, while other stores use this space for discounted items or house brands of lower stock items (products for which a store carries less stock -- at Walmart, an example would be Great Value canned Asparagus). 

As I switched over to online shopping (for curbside pickup) this past spring, I had a stunning revelation. Online grocery store shopping has not caught up with the tactics of in-store manufacturer product placement. You find a small amount of product placement on sites like Amazon, with "sponsored" products featured near the top of "results" pages. Yet when I search for an item on Walmart's website for curbside pickup, the default listing is "relevance". So, if I search "broccoli" on WM's site, the first item is Great Value frozen broccoli cuts, the least expensive (cost per pound) way for me to buy broccoli. When I search broccoli for curbside at my local Fred Meyer, the first item to show up is again the least expensive way for me to buy broccoli in their store this week. I will add, Fred Meyer has added "featured" items, which don't relate to my product search, that I suspect are just like Amazon's "sponsored" products, products/brands that pay to have their items placed in high view of the consumer when shopping online. I also searched broccoli at my local Safeway (another grocery chain). And again, one of the least expensive forms of broccoli appeared in the first space on the results page.

With this knowledge of a relative lack of product placement for online grocery shopping, we can shop for greatest value with fewer distractions and easier cost comparisons, without the need to adjust our view. 

Using online shopping tools to their best advantage

Checking frozen, fresh, and canned for different forms of same food
The search feature is invaluable. Being able to shop several departments or aisles of a store simultaneously is a game-changer for finding the best value for product categories. When searching "sweet potatoes",  the results page showed items from fresh produce, canned vegetables, and frozen vegetables. Unit pricing for each form is provided so I can quickly assess which I want to add to my cart. In the event that unit pricing isn't uniform (some priced per pound, others per ounce), the calculator on whatever device I'm using makes quick work of calculating best value. I am able to shop several different "aisles" all at the same time. 

Eliminating impulse buys made easy
In addition, I'm not impulse shopping at the checkout, on aisle end caps, or by eye-level placement of products. I realized the other day that I haven't bought Tic Tacs in almost a year! I also haven't bought any tempting bakery goods in this same period. It's hard to say how much I've saved by eliminating impulse shopping, but I do know that I've eliminated buying items that are mostly frivolous or expensive versions of something I could make at home.

Making smarter substitution choices by taking my time
You've probably experienced the following scenario. You plan a meal and the ingredients that you will need for it, only to get to the grocery store and discover they are completely out of the value version of one of the ingredients. In the heat of the moment, with other shoppers crowding around, perhaps on an empty stomach or overstimulated by all of the noise right around you, you have to make a quick decision on how you'll solve this dilemma. Product placement of the premium brand lures you into grabbing that item and popping it into your cart so that you can move on with the rest of your shopping. By filling my cart online, I get an idea beforehand which items are currently out of stock and I can take my time while still at home to rework my meal plan and/or list. I don't know about you, but I tend to make smarter choices when I'm still at home in the peace and quiet of my own private space.

Spending is completely in my control
As I add items to my order, the store's website keeps a running tab for me. I keep an eye on this, keeping me within my spending limit. I can review what I've added to my cart and remove quantity or items, if I feel I'm over spending. I can't tell you how many times I've been literally shocked by the total at the checkout when shopping in-person. I go in to pick up a few items, then I add an extra one or two of this and pick-up that other great deal or two, and before I know it, I've completely filled the cart! With online cart-filling, I watch the totals on the website as I add items to my virtual cart.

For those of us who are now shopping entirely online, we're learning all of this with each shopping experience.

One other tip for ordering online for pickup. If you're comfortable getting pick-up orders from more than one store in a week, try filling two or more virtual carts at different stores, shopping the best deals from each store. It's far easier to do pick-ups than in-person shopping at a couple of stores. You're only out the extra time and gas to grab that extra trunk load. 

And if you're still shopping in-person, here's my tip for you: Put together your shopping list from your store's website, filling a virtual cart as you make your list. (But don't check-out.) You may find forms of foods on your lists that are found in multiple sections of the store that you might overlook otherwise. For example, you can find ground turkey, hamburger patties, or chicken in both the freezer section as well as the fresh meat department, benefitting from best prices and the luck of availability of one option over another. You'll also be able to track your spending as you put items into a virtual cart and make those last-minute substitutions for items that are out of stock, all from the comfort of your quiet home. At the end of your virtual shopping exercise/making your list, screen capture your cart or write it down, then cancel your cart before an order is placed. 

For my family's groceries, utilizing my stores' websites for groceries has yielded big savings and turned up options that I didn't even know were available. I've been very pleasantly surprised to find a huge variety in frozen fruits and vegetables, variety that I never noticed before, because in the store, it was outside of my eye-level view.

Happy shopping and saving, friends!


  1. An interesting, useful summary, Lili, with your typical thorough analysis. We have only done online grocery shopping a couple of times and that was to make sure we understood the process before we helped my father-in-law learn how to do it. One of the stumbling blocks for him was the substitution process if the store was out of what he ordered because he doesn't text. Do you get many substitutions? Do they contact you and ask you what you want?

    We do most of our shopping at Aldi's which has overall good prices on their store brands--which is most of the store. They do carry name brand things here and there that are big sellers, like Coke, that they most people want. The prices on those are usually just okay, so you have to be mindful. While they have a decent selection, they don't have a huge selection which helps. In fact, that's one of the reasons I like them--they're not so big and I can get in and out much faster than some of the more typical stores. However, they don't carry everything and we do visit the local Food Lion for a few things.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      We've tried a couple of types of online services. We tried the kind where someone is your personal shopper then delivers it to your home (Insta-cart and Shipt). With Insta-cart, I had the option to approve substitutions on my laptop, via a chat window. With Shipt (what Target uses), substitutions could be made by text or phone call.

      The other type of online shopping is store pick-up. I've done this with 2 different stores. Walmart has you tick a box saying it's okay for them to make a substitution for you. You can opt out of substitutions for one item or all. I've found that almost all of the substitutions have been better than what I'd have chosen. Only once was it something sort of odd, but a better value. (I put in for frozen butternut squash chunks and they substituted whole, fresh butternut squash -- but they charged me far, far less than I would have paid if I had ordered the fresh squash.) With Walmart, if they have to substitute, they promise it will be a better deal for the customer -- like a larger package or a more premium brand. In the hour before a pick-up, I get an email showing me what they've chosen for subs and I have the option at that point to turn down any substitutions. The policy at the other store may have changed, this was a couple of years ago. But they make substitutions for you and allow you to turn them down at pick-up. It required more interaction with the employee. But as I said, this was a couple of years ago and they have likely updated how they handle subs.

      Some orders, I get several substitutions. But others, like my pick-up last week, nothing was substituted, they had everything I ordered. With your father-in-law, I can see how some of this may be problematic, especially if he doesn't text and that's the mode of communication by the employees. Plus, I've observed that many older folks have a more difficult time with unplanned changes, so a substitution might be unsettling.

      Another kind of shopping that might work for your father-in-law for part of his groceries is a dairy delivery service. It's not cheap, but there's an abundance of items that can be ordered and placed on a routine reorder schedule. This is what my grandmother used in her later years. She was able to get milk, cheese, butter, bread, cottage cheese, eggs, and pre-made jello salads (and maybe a couple of other pre-made salads, I can't remember all) from dairy delivery service. If she didn't feel like going to the grocery store in person, she would have enough food to get through several days.I've noticed that a lot more of my neighbors now have those dairy delivery boxes on their front porches, as compared to before the pandemic.

      Does Aldi have an online ordering or pick-up option? It sounds like a good grocery option for value.

      Enjoy your day, Live and Learn!

    2. Unfortunately, his local Walmart doesn't have a pickup service or I think that he would try it. He does pick up his meds at Walmart that way. Right now he is using Amazon grocery delivery. He happens to live in one of the cities that has a large, warehouse, Amazon grocery story--different than what you can get on the regular site or Whole Foods. It is working pretty well, but doesn't carry everything he likes. We could help him get a couple of more options, but right now we have a different focus. We're trying to get him set up with Zoom for more family communication and tele doctors appointments. He is a very intelligent man and at 87 still has excellent reasoning abilities. However, his whole life he has studied something for a very long time before he tries it and that is a stumbling block for us as we try to help him. That combined with the distancing or no visiting for safety reasons makes the process a bit more difficult than it might have been in the past. But it's all good.

    3. Live and Learn,
      Good luck with this. It sounds like a difficult situation. That's a shame that his local Walmart doesn't offer pick-up groceries. I think they're doing an excellent job and seem to be flexible with varying degrees of customer's technology access. Hopefully Zoom will help him in other ways.

  2. Very interesting information, Lili. My pre-covid thoughts were that these services would cost you more money. Now, I'm seeing how they could be cost savers.

    I have a friend who lives near me. Her mother lives alone in her own home on the other side of the state. My friend uses Shipt to do the grocery shopping for her mom and mentions that the different shoppers can make or break the experience. It sounds like you can't request the same shopper all the time--is that true with Walmart as well?

    1. Hi Kris,
      services like Shipt and Insta-cart do add extra cost, but most stores are doing free curbside pick-ups at no extra charge. Pre-pandemic, the curbside did have a fee. Our local Kroger affiliate offered the first 3 pick-ups for free, then about a $5 fee each time afterward. With Walmart, their store staff does the shopping for you, so you get random store personnel doing your shopping. What I can say with store personnel doing the shopping is that they know the store and the products really well. With Shipt and Insta-cart, contractors do the shopping and may not know to look on end caps for additional stock *if regular shelves are bare), etc. And I agree, the few times we used Shipt (with a free 30-day trial), we had varying experiences. Some shoppers were more helpful than others.

      I'm very grateful to our local Walmart. I've been so impressed with their kind and professional manner. As long as pick-up remains free, I'll likely use it, at least part of the time.

      I still believe that even if someone plans to shop in-person that they should use the store's website to help in making their list, especially if they're on a budget. It would save in-store time as you would make brand choices at home, instead trying to decide on products in the store. And one could see the less expensive options, again from home.

      Have a good afternoon and evening, Kris.


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