Supermarket tricks for fooling unsuspecting consumers

We are off on our regular September holiday this week, and this year that has meant travelling to a house on the coast that is actually across the road from the beach. I’m sitting on the couch in the upstairs living room and looking out the window over the balcony to the beach as I write this, and can’t wait for it to be afternoon time so that I can have a beer without feeling guilty! After a couple of quite sunny days today’s weather is pretty ordinary, so it’s a good day to stay inside and write.

So how does the above setting tie in with the title of this post? Well, the great weather over the last few days meant that we went through more sunscreen than expected for our pasty white skin, so we headed off to the supermarket in a nearby town to sort this out. My wife headed off to the bottle shop to stock up on wine (I already had enough beer), and I took the kids into the supermarket to get some more sunscreen.

Time got away from me in the supermarket and my wife was left waiting out the front wondering how hard it can be to sort out sun protection! I must admit that I was surprised how hard it was to pick one, what with all of the tricks the supermarket were trying to play on me!

The minefield that is sunscreen (huh?)

Supermarket shelves: This was a bit of what it was like (minus the pretty girl and substitute me and my misbehaving kids). Image credit: stretchyourincome.or

Supermarket shelves: This was a bit of what it was like (just substitute the pretty girl for me and my misbehaving kids).
Image credit:

Over the last year or so I like to think that I have honed my frugality skills to be able to buy the best value product from a given selection. Admittedly I haven’t had to exercise this skill as much since we switched to Aldi supermarkets, where they don’t give you an unnecessarily large range to try to confuse you (they just give you one product that is perfectly fit for purpose), but since there is not usually an Aldi supermarket in small beach towns I was stuck dealing with the local Woolworths.

It had been quite some time since I had been inside a Woolworths supermarket (for you non-Australians, Woolworths is one of the two large supermarket chains that are known as the supermarket duopoly, with something like 70% of the market between them), so their shonky pricing tactics just hit me in the face.

Some of these shonky tactics that I noticed immediately included:

  1. Placement on shelves.
  2. Keeping low stock levels of value products.
  3. Tiny unit pricing disclosure.
  4. Ridiculously small sizes that deliver apalling value.
  5. Outlier pricing to make other prices seem more reasonable.

Placement on shelves

Supermarkets (the dodgy ones anyway) tend to place products in the same way most of the time. This involves putting home brand and economy products on the very bottom shelf, and the more expensive higher margin products at eye level or thereabouts. This was certainly true in this case, with the products that you would actually want being put almost at foot level, with shelves that just about overhung them so that you couldn’t see them!

That way they can say that they stock value products, but you won’t actually buy them.

Low stock of value products

Home brand sunscreen: The labelling looks like I did it (what with all of my marketing skills), but I would have bought it if they actually had some in stock!

Homebrand sunscreen: The labelling looks like I did it (what with all of my marketing skills), but I would have bought it if they actually had some in stock!

The value products (which were the Home Brand and Woolworths Select products) had about 4-6 product lines dedicated to them on the bottom shelf (there was only one Home Brand product, and there were about 5 Woolworths Select products), which was pretty pathetic given that there must’ve been 60-80 product lines in total.

Unsurprisingly, the Home Brand product (at less than $2/100mL of sunscreen) was sold out, so that

Woolworths Select Sunscreen: Now this was the stuff that I bought. No squeezy tube for me - and while it was slightly heavier than a tube it wasn't particularly inconvenient really.

Woolworths Select sunscreen: Now this was the stuff that I bought. No squeezy tube for me, and while it was slightly heavier than a tube it wasn’t particularly inconvenient really.

meant moving on to the Woolworths Select products. They had a larger-than-I-wanted 1L container at $2/100mL (or $20 all up), and had then sold out of their smaller size of 500mL. The only other Woolworths Select products were stupid spray on ones that they design for people that are too lazy to apply sunscreen (and also tend to be about 3-4 times the price per 100mL) even though it’s just as time consuming to spray it on and then rub it in as it is to just apply the sunscreen by hand.

Given this situation, I could only assume that Woolworths do this on purpose. After all, they control the supply of these products, so there’s really no excuse for why they wouldn’t be able to get enough of something like sunscreen in a beach town.

Making unit pricing labels so small that most dumb people won’t notice/read them

A few years back Australia introduced mandatory “unit pricing” to stop product suppliers from confusing the hell out of customers by making their product a ridiculous size so that it couldn’t be compared. For example, it’s harder (without a calculator or an average IQ or higher) to determine which is better value – the 345mL container for $15 or the 280mL container for $12. If you had a calculator you’d know that one was $4.35/100mL and the other was $4.29/100mL, but if you didn’t have a calculator and aren’t Einstein then you’d be screwed. That’s just what Woolworths would have wanted. Enter unit pricing.

The solution t this pesky problem was to make them disclose the price per unit (in this case, price per 100mL of sunscreen) on the label, which they did, but no one counted on them writing it on the label in something like size 2 font. Yes, size 2 is an exaggeration, but it might as well have been size 2 the way that Woolworths have done it since you need a friggin’ magnifying glass to be able to notice that it’s even there. As I was looking at the unit pricing labels I couldn’t help but think that most holiday tourists wouldn’t have even noticed the unit pricing and then bought based solely on the overall price, which would have meant that they bought one of the worst-value products.

Ridiculously small sizes

In my attempts to avoid paying $20 just to get us out of trouble with sunsreen, I looked for smaller sizes. As I indicated earlier, the moderate size (500mL) was out of stock, and it then stepped down to smaller sizes (e.g. 250mL, 100mL, 50mL) for the brand name products in squeezy tubes (rather than bottles with pump tops). I expected to pay a premium for these products and was resigned to this fact, but what I wasn’t resigned to was that I would have to give up my first born child just to be able to afford sunscreen for the second child.

Outlier pricing to make other prices seem more reasonable

As I looked at some of the prices (try $14/100mL, or a shocking 600% increase over the Woolworths Select 1L price) I was just amazed that no one would notice that they were insane. How the hell could anyone in their right mind buy sunscreen for such a mark-up. But then I realised that “expensive” is a relative term – after all, something is only expensive compared to other products that are around it, which is why they use outlier products.

The most expensive sunscreen that they had was something closer to $20/100mL or a shocking 900% mark-up over the Woolworths Select version, and my only conclusion was that you would have to be dumb, deaf and blind to purchase this product. Either that, or you would have to be a typical hyper-consumer who thinks that the most expensive product is the best, which would still make you dumb, just not in a literal, unable to speak sense.

After being initially dumbstruck myself at this pricing, I soon realised that this was a deliberate outlier product that was most likely designed to make all of the other $14/100mL prices seem reasonable. The tactic had some effect on me as I started to think that $14/100mL really wasn’t that bad, but then I woke up to myself and realised that they’re all the same crap – all rated the same, all cream that serves the same purpose, and probably all made in the same factory.

After that the decision was easy – just take the Woolworths Select 1L for $2/100mL or $20 total and run. We’d only use a fraction of the sunscreen on this holiday, but we’d use it again soon anyway so it wouldn’t be a waste at all.

So did you actually get to the beach that day or did you stay in the supermarket until sundown?

Now you’re probably thinking that I must’ve been in the supermarket all day processing all of this, but for a frugal brain even this onslaught of shonky tactics didn’t delay me for too long. I stood there for probably seven minutes, and by the time I got out my wife was waiting out the front wondering what the problem was. She knew exactly which bottle of wine she wanted and probably didn’t even look at the price, so her transaction is over in about two minutes.

The moral of the story here isn’t so much about sunscreen (although there are certainly some real issues with this class of products) as it is about using your brain generally when you have to buy something. Too often relatively smart marketing people have set a trap that most typical hyper-consumers fall into, so you really need to be on your toes to avoid being robbed by these thieves. I personally see it as a bit of a challenge to see if I can beat them (I know, it’s a bit weird), but once you get in the groove it takes almost no time.

So what other shonky marketing/pricing tactics have you seen of late where people are trying to pick your pocket of your hard earned cash?


P.S. Yes, we went to the beach later that day and it was sensational. There were no negative outcomes from the cheap sunscreen either!

4 thoughts on “Supermarket tricks for fooling unsuspecting consumers

  1. I just found your website from a comment on another website. I’m excited to go back read your previous posts.

  2. Woolworth’s is a supermarket? In Canada and Germany they are discount stores selling a ton of crap. I think in Canada they have all closed down decades ago, but apparently back in the 70’s they sold better quality stuff.

    • Yeah, it’s a supermarket here, but I recently found out that it’s a big department store in South Africa. It doesn’t surprise me that the name was used in other countries, but am surprised that they were known for selling low quality crap!

      None of these were actually linked, but perhaps they had common roots back in the day?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *