There are certain experiences that bind Americans together, like paying taxes, mowing the grass, and fighting with rebellious teenagers. One of these is grocery shopping. David Fikes, from the Food Marketing Institute, says, “Grocery shopping remains the all-American pastime.” There are nearly 39,000 large supermarkets in America today. The USDA reports that Americans spend 5.2 percent of their disposable income on food.

Everyone is concerned about feeding their families. Senator Kamala Harris scored points at the Democratic presidential debate by saying, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re gonna put food on their table.” The average American grocery shops 1.6 times a week. Typically, some other household member goes shopping at least every other week, bringing the total up to 2.2 trips per week. This adds up to about 60 hours of grocery shopping per year, although it seems like a lot more.

When I was growing up in a small town in Illinois, my family usually shopped in a small local grocery store, except on the Fridays when my father got paid. Then the whole family went to the large A&P grocery store in East St. Louis, across from the Sears and Roebuck store. The A&P had automatic doors, a bakery, and a full assortment of Ann Page brand groceries. I always begged my mother to get shredded wheat cereal like I saw on television commercials. If I was lucky, I’d get a hot dog and root beer at the Sears.

When I was young and single, I was usually broke and I spent a great deal of time grocery shopping. I literally shopped every day. On the way home from work I always stopped at the grocery store. I bought tiny amounts of food — just enough for one meal. It was foolish, but I didn’t want to tie up my limited resources in food reserves. I’m sure I wasted a lot of money buying such small quantities.

Nowadays, my wife Diane does almost all of the hard grocery shopping. It seems like shopping is more difficult now than ever. The average size of a grocery store is over 45,000 square feet — and growing. Kroger Stores now average at least 67,000 square feet. Also the number of items sold in the average store has increased to well over 60,000 items from around 40,000 items. If this seems overwhelming, it is intended to be so. Diane and I used to joke about supermarkets having a brain jammer operating, designed to keep shoppers from wandering around the store for hours. Turns out this is not far from the truth.

About half of supermarket purchases are items we had no intention of buying when we walked in the door. Supermarkets are designed to over stimulate and hijack our brains. They usually put the fresh produce section at the front of the store. Chicago psychologist Michael Barr says, “…planners want an image that the store is fresh, inviting and pleasant. The more senses that you can engage in a person, the more likely they are going to make a purchase.”

The colors used, the lighting, the background music, the free samples, the aromas, and the numerous possible purchases all play into this sensory overload. Paul Mullins, from Bangor University, used brain-scans to study the effects of this on decision-making. He found that the demands of trying to make so many decisions quickly becomes too much for shoppers to process. After about 40 minutes, people stopped making rational decisions and began shopping emotionally. This is when we start accumulating most of our unintended purchases.

A great deal of planning has gone into the design of the modern grocery store. In recently built supermarkets, the fresh produce is usually followed by the deli and bakery sections. Most people who come to shop have dairy items on their list. That’s why the dairy section is located in the deepest section of the store. Michael Williams, from Oklahoma City University, says supermarkets force shoppers to walk past a number of other items before they reach the milk, increasing the possibility of impulse purchases. Most stores encourage a counterclockwise circulation pattern because most people push shopping carts with their left hand while picking up things with their right hand. Over time, shopping carts have gradually tripled in size. One study reported that doubling the size of cart increased purchases by 49 percent. Also, like casinos, most supermarkets do not have external time cues like windows, skylights, or clocks.

Shelf space and product placement are also critical factors. End-cap displays are items placed at the end of an aisle that easily grab attention. They are where sales are usually placed and food companies often pay premiums to have their product placed there. This is also true of products at eye-level. Brands negotiate with stores and pay slotting fees to have products placed at a particular location on the shelf. Products that appeal to children, such as sweet cereals and treats, are often placed at kids eye-level. Experts advise looking above and below the eye-level products to find the real bargains in supermarkets.

Nearly 25 percent of grocery purchases are spent on processed foods and confections and most of these are unintended purchases. Not long ago, food experts suggested that shoppers would do better if they shopped mostly along the perimeter of the store, where the healthier, unprocessed foods were usually positioned. More recently, however, nutritionists say that the perimeter rule is dead, as stores have wised up and started placing sugar-laden products along the perimeters. The modern supermarket is full of psychological traps and tricks. For healthier and more economical food shopping, experts simply recommend limiting your shopping trips and stringently adhering to your shopping list.

Online grocery shopping may be an answer for some people looking to shop healthier, or want to avoid unintended purchases and the stress of going to the stores. Online grocery shopping tripled between 2013 and 2018, but it still accounts for only about 2 percent of the grocery market. Amazon and Walmart account for over 28 percent of all online grocery shopping and such shopping is expected to quadruple by 2023. Online shoppers tend to be Millennials and Generation X shoppers, who use the internet for most of their shopping needs. Other online shoppers tend to be elderly people with mobility problems and parents of young children with many demands on their time. Online grocery shopping still seems too strange for me, although I have made online purchases of Danish pastries, British candy bars, and packets of pickle relish that I can put on tuna salad sandwiches at restaurants.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., who doesn’t like to be without pickle relish, lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at