There’s much more to doing a frugal weekly shop than going to one of the cheaper supermarkets and looking out for special offers. Indeed, to get a really great deal, you need to make canny shopping into an art form. After all, these businesses have poured millions into finding ways to get you to spend as much as possible. They have their tricks. You’ll need some of your own.

An Assault on the Senses

Before we start running through some smart shopping strategies, here’s a look at the physical experience of visiting the supermarket and how it leads to us handing over more of our cash.

Smell: They say you should never do a food shop whilst you’re hungry. Everything will seem more appealing and you’ll buy up all sorts of things that you don’t need based on a temporary sensation. Unfortunately, supermarkets actually attempt to make us feel hungrier than we are by pumping the smell of freshly baked bread throughout the place.

Sight: The products at eye level on the shelf are those with the highest mark up. If you want to save you’ll literally need to stoop to find lower priced alternatives.

Space: The most commonly bought items are spaced apart to ensure that you cover as much ground as possible with each trip. This isn’t done in an attempt to keep you nice and lean. It’s to make sure you walk past as much tempting produce as possible.

These little tricks are widely known about, and yet they still work. That’s testament to just how effective they are. You need to keep them in the forefront of your mind when doing your shop to avoid being duped into spending over the odds. One good way of combating the ingenious layout of a store is to have a list and not only stick to it, but navigate the store according to it, keeping away from anything you don’t want to buy. This will help take temptation out of the picture.

The Psychology of Anti-Branding

We’re all aware that brands spend big to burrow themselves into our consciousness. Most of us also realise that supermarkets stand to make more from selling their expensive ranges than they do from pedalling their basic products. But have you stopped to consider how this affects the way supermarkets will sell certain items?

They know that you have a choice for any product you might be looking at. There will be the big brand name, with its iconic logo, there will be the seller’s own brand which will pitch itself as cheap and cheerful knock off of the more famous brand name version, and then there will be the ‘basic’ version. The packaging for this will be downright stark. It may even be completely plain, but for a label saying what it is and listing the ingredients in an unfriendly looking font.

It’d be natural to assume that, seeing as this product is the most basic, it has stark packaging because they didn’t want to spend money on making it look good. In reality the opposite is true. The packaging has been cleverly and very deliberately designed to look as unappetising as possible. It sounds mad but it’s true. They are deliberately making their product look bad so as to make you feel like you’re better off going for a more pricey option. You might think, well if they couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into the packaging then the stuff inside can’t be too good. They’re trying to enforce the perception that the only way to get good quality produce is to pay more.

Of course, it would be naive to ignore the cynical use of social stigma behind their tactics. We can all admit that we get a bit squeamish about having our finances broadcast far and wide. By making the cheapest products look so different from the rest, they are trying to embarrass us into avoiding them as choosing them will make it obvious to everyone around us, or who comes to visit our homes, that we are trying to save. They know people feel awkward about these things and they seek to capitalise on it.

At the end of the day, it’s just a number of illusions working in tandem. First there is the illusion that the stuff in the different boxes varies greatly in quality. In most cases the difference will be negligible. The second is the illusion that the different products are all being marketed by people competing and doing their best to win you over. That isn’t the case. The marketing strategies work together to make sure the most expensive looks the most attractive. Always remember that just as much cunning (if not money) has gone into the packaging of the ‘basic’ or ‘economy’ item as the ‘own brand’ one that attempts to look like the yet more expensive brand name option.

Of course, it should be said that part of the reason for making ‘basic’ products look the way they do is to help make them obvious to people who can’t afford anything else. At the same time though, it seems the supermarkets are keen not to have those who can afford ‘better’ saving their pennies by grabbing them as well.

Try out cheaper items and see if you can actually tell any different. Chances are you won’t be able to. Indeed, many taste tests have shown people to prefer cheaper options to their posher counterparts. Of course, if a genuine offer makes a brand name cheaper, go for it.

Be Aware of Your Spending

As the things we buy from the supermarkets are the day to day things we can’t do without, we don’t really have the option of not buying them. This can lead us to get a bit lazy when it comes to monitoring our spending. If we think of our weekly shop in its entirety as being an unavoidable expense then we’ll fail to see ways we can save.

Remember, to keep your receipts and compare what you’ve saved if you switch to cheaper options or manage to eliminate unnecessary items. This is a great way to keep on the ball with regards to spending.

Beware ‘Special’ Offers

Of course, you’ll occasionally see comical instances where a retailer makes a multi-buy offer that is actually more expensive than buying the products individually (it’s unclear whether these are just innocent mistakes or a way of targeting people with poor numeracy skills) but even offers that do appear to make sense might not really be all that great.

It’s been found to be common practice for supermarkets to sell an item for a very short time at an inflated price, simply so they can then offer it at a ‘reduced’ price later. To a customer, this will feel like great savings are being made. The reality is, you’re simply paying a fair price. The previous price was far too high.

The lesson is simply to look at the bottom line. Is there a cheaper alternative to what you’re buying? Whether it’s on offer or not isn’t really relevant to how much you’re spending.

If you want to see some really good special prices, often the best deals in the whole store are the individually reduced items. If you go shopping later in the day, at between 7pm-10pm you’ll see items knocked down by 75% or more.

The other area where it’s good to take advantage of offers is non-perishable goods, as you don’t have to worry about using them within a certain time frame.

Grab Some Online Vouchers

It won’t take you an awful lot of effort to find a load of places where you can avail yourself of coupons that’ll knock down the rice of your shopping. Just be aware that often the idea behind these promotions is simply to get you in the door in the hope you’ll splurge once you’re there. This can actually work quite well as the customer already has their coupon, and therefore feels they’ve made some savings. This could make it more tempting to indulge in some pricey treats.

Take Them Up On Their Promise

Lots of supermarkets have price match promises, but not many people can be bothered to take up the mantle and actually put them to the test. However, it’s not all that hard. Asda for instance will refund you the difference if your shopping would have cost less at Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrison or Tescos. All you need to is go online and enter in the code from your receipt. They’ll even give a refund if their competitors would’ve come within 10% of theirs. Tesco and Sainsbury’s both purport to offer automatic refunds where they’re more expensive.

Don’t Be a Waster

Never throw away food based on its display until date. That doesn’t concern you. It’s for the staff. Food will still be fine to eat after this time. It’s also important to understand that a best before date is, as its name suggests, simply date before which a product is at optimal quality. This doesn’t necessarily mean there is any risk in consuming it after this time. It just implies that, in the manufacturer’s opinion that the flavour and texture might not quite be what they were.

The use by date is the only one that should be prompting you to throw anything away. With a little bit of forward planning you should be able to think of ways to use your ingredients before this happens.

Think About Leaving the Kids at Home

The supermarket won’t give up trying to wrest a little more from you until you’re completely out of their grasp. Even when you make it to the checkout queue and are waiting to pay, you’ll be bombarded with one last array of expensive treats. These are especially alluring for children, and even if you can resist your own sweet tooth, you may have your willpower broken by the pleading of your little ones.

Indeed, this ‘nag factor‘ (the ability of a product to get children to harass their parents into throwing their money at it) will follow you all round the store. If you’ve ever been shopping with a child you’ve probably had them try and slyly smuggle something into your trolley undetected. To be fair, if you’ve ever been a child you’ve probably tried to smuggle something into a parent’s shopping trolley undetected.

With that in mind, though it may sound cold, it’s a pretty good idea to leave the kid’s at home if possible. That way there’ll be no tantrums.