23 Scams and Sneaky Tricks at the Grocery Store

By Meagan Morris

Grocers use some sneaky tricks!

You try to pinch every penny you spend at the grocery store and even save a few extra with coupons, but you're probably still spending more than you should at the grocery store each week. Thanks to the psychological tricks of manufacturers, you're likely getting cheated—or at least manipulated to spend more—every time you walk in the door.

We've compiled the most common ploys to help you be a bit more aware of what happens when you walk down the aisles. Check 'em out, think about your own habits, and then don't miss these The Top 15 Grocery Stores in the U.S. that get rave reviews from customers.

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First, Some Sketchy Scams

Hot, Fresh Fibs for Sale

Many grocers have an on-site bakery that bakes breads, donuts, and other pastries from scratch. But others simply cook up frozen dough sent from outside manufacturers.

"They arrive raw and we bake them and package them," one Costco employee wrote on Reddit of the store's cookies. "We do bake plenty of stuff from scratch (the 'Birthday' cakes, apple pies, pumpkin pies, etc.) but some items are brought in from outside and just thawed and packaged or baked and packaged."

Discover these 14 Money-Saving Secrets from Costco Employees if that's your favorite store to stock up at!

Something Fishy

You know that wild-caught seafood is better than farm-raised, but many grocers are pulling a fast one by saying farm-raised is actually wild. And that's not the worst of it; at some sketchy stores, the seafood you think you're buying is actually something else. For example, it's possible that the "scallops" are actually just punched out from the bodies of white fish.

Not-So-Nice Spices

Spice fraud is pretty rampant around the world, especially given that some of the rarer spices go for big money. It's not unheard of for spices like paprika to actually be made from leftovers of other spices. This can pose a serious health risk if you think you're getting one spice but it's something else.

Watered-Down Juice

It's actually really simple for food manufacturers to water down juice without anyone being the wiser. According to the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention's Food Fraud Database, orange juice is one of the main waterlogged juices. Other juices, like the trendy pomegranate juice, are cut with other juices—like apple—to increase volume. Our advice is to skip the juice altogether; the too-sweet beverages have been shown to make you fat. For more, watch this video on The Shocking Drink That Makes You Fat.

Honey Hold-Up

Adding a big squeeze or dollop of honey in your tea or on your oatmeal is a sweet treat, but much of the store-bought honey isn't honey at all. According to a Food Safety News report, as much as 75 percent of the honey sold at stores doesn't contain pollen. It's still made from bees, but all of the pollen is pulled out during processing.


Pumped-Up Meat

Read the label on many packages of meat like chicken and pork and you'll find a note that says a saline solution has been added. The reason: Pumping up meat with water makes it bigger so you think you're getting more, but you're actually paying more than you should because of it.

EVOO, Oh No!

Olive oil is a $1.5 billion business in the United States, making it a huge target for fraud. According to The Food Renegade, as much as 70 percent of olive oil marketed as extra virgin is actually cut with other oil. It's so prevalent that even some seasoned olive oil testers say they can't tell the difference between real and fake EVOO.

Eggs That Aren't What They Seem to Be

Eggs are an amazing source of heart-healthy fats. (Find out more about What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Eggs!) But the way eggs are raised in factories take the nutrition down a notch; and yes, there are ethical concerns with the way the chickens are treated. Cage-free and free-range eggs seem like a better alternative, but manufacturers have taken advantage of that, listing eggs as "free-range" and "organic" when they're really raised in factories. The reason is simple: They can charge more for these eggs, and they're cheaper to produce. The government is cracking down on these fraudsters, thankfully.

Now, For Some More Sneaky Tricks

Produce Psychology

Every store has a rainbow of produce lined up near the front of the store. Weird, right? Not really: Research shows that people feel better about loading their carts with healthy produce and that they're then more likely to splurge on other stuff in the aisles. It's bittersweet to us—we're just glad some of the healthiest whole foods aren't totally hidden in the back. (See #13!)

Giant Carts

You aren't imagining things; shopping carts really are getting bigger. The reason: Researchers found that people who used bigger carts ended up spending 40 percent more in the store—that's a big chunk of change. Instead, grab a basket (but ugh, aren't those also getting so big?!) or nothing at all if you really are hoping to only pick up a few things. And hey, check out these 17 Simple Ways to Save $255 a Month on Groceries!

Impulse Buys

Candy! Cold soda! Chewing gum and chips! The options at the checkout counters are enticing and endless. That's by design; placing all of the easy-to-grab, sweet, fizzy, and salty snacks at the front make it easy to just throw in your cart while you're waiting to check out. Plus, it's often placed so little kids have easy access. Stores know that a fussy child who wants candy is probably going to get what he wants.

Expensive Eye-Level

Think of the last time you looked for an item on the grocery shelf. Where did your eyes look first? The middle. Grocers know this and put the most expensive products there, knowing you'll just grab the first can or box you see. Next time, try comparing the prices of products placed above and below—often you'll find big price differences for a similar box of cereal or tub of oats for your overnight oats.

Hidden Essentials

It happens every time: You just need to pick up milk and eggs after work, but you have to trek all the way to the back of the store to get it. What gives? Maybe it's the refrigeration system, maybe it's a mechanism for temperature control, or maybe it's so you'll have to walk passed—and possibly pick up—plenty of other products on the way.

End-Cap Enticements

Products that have high-profit margins—like soda, chips, and other snack foods—are often stacked prominently at the end of aisles with irresistible signs and other eye-catching gimmicks. It's not that these are great deals for you; it's that they're great deals for the grocery stores.

Sneaky 10 for $10 Deals

A store advertises 10 cans of soup for $10 and it seems like a pretty good deal—$1 each! It is, until you read the fine print that says you have to buy all 10 to get them for $1 each, otherwise they're $1.75 per can. You don't need 10, but you buy them anyway to get the deal—and that's what stores want.

Pre-Cut Produce Ploy

Cutting veggies and fruits can be one of the most tedious parts of cooking, so buying them pre-cut feels like a no-brainer. Grocery stores know this and charge extra—sometimes double—for the same amount of produce sitting uncut a few feet away. We vote for the D.I.Y. version where you make meal prep one of your top waist-whittling strategies!

Layout Swaps

You just figured out where everything is located in your favorite grocery store when—bam!—they switch everything around. The reasoning is simple: Changing your pattern exposes you to new products that will maybe, just maybe, end up in your cart.

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In-Your-Face Smells

Just walking into a grocery store can be a sensory overload—as soon as you walk in you're blasted with the smells of fresh-baked bread, coffee, and rotisserie chicken in the deli. These mouth-watering scents are put front-and-center for a reason: They make you hungry—and more likely to spend, spend, spend!

Slowing, Soft Music

Every grocery store plays slow, soothing music—and it's not just because the manager likes it. Slow music is actually shown to make you calmer and walk slower, leading you to spend more time in the store, perusing and buying more stuff. Instead of aimlessly trying to decide what to buy while you enjoy a little James Taylor from the overhead speaker, how about you just take a cue from How a Nutritionist Spends $100 on Groceries? You'll be surprised how far her dollars stretch!

Leaning on Loyalty

Loyalty cards are marketed as clubs that get you the best deals and extra bonuses, like money off a gas purchase. Sure, they can net you a deal, but the specials are sometimes the same that non-cardholders get. Plus, the idea of earning "points" with purchases—like for money off gas—might actually get you to spend more. The worst case scenario? The grocer may be allowed to share (er, even sell!) your information to other marketers. Read the fine print before signing up for loyalty cards at places you barely shop at.

.99 Problems

Prices that end in .99 seem silly—why not just make it easier on everyone and change $5.99 to $6.00? Well, it all has to do with the human brain. Researchers have found that people don't fully process the numbers after the first one that's read, so an item that is priced at $5.99 seems cheaper than $6.00. That penny could mean the difference between making the sale or not.

Free Sample SUCCESS

There's a reason why grocery stores and retailers dole out samples regularly—these freebies gets people to commit to the full-size thing. Everyone loves free food and getting the chance to try before you buy makes you feel better about your purchase.

DON'T MISS: 20 Ways to Save Big at Aldi

"Limited Time" LIES

"Limited time only!" "Get them before they're gone!" Grocery stores are notorious for using these phrases in their advertising to trigger a sense of urgency in customers. We love to feel like a part of a special club—and we definitely don't want to miss out on something cool or a fleeting season—so stores say things like "limited-time only" to tap into that. The reality: It's probably not limited-time only. And if it is? Well, if it's a profitable product, you can bet it'll be back soon if it's not completely out of season. Now that you've learned so many tricks of the trade, don't miss these Best and Worst Foods at Trader Joes!


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