What's the worst thing a woman can tell a man?
If it's a healthy, economical meal she wants, "Get something for dinner on the way home" can be a recipe for disaster.
Why? In most families -- even those in which men buy the groceries -- women still make the shopping decisions. Without a list, men get lost in today's fast-paced supermarkets, says David W. Stewart, the Robert E. Brooker Professor of Marketing the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
"More and more men are picking up items at the grocery store," Stewart tells WebMD. "But they are frequently following the instructions of the female in the household. Traditionally, the woman was the decision maker and shopper. Now the female is still the primary decision maker, but the shopping is more often shared by two individuals."
Men and Women in the Grocery Aisles
More and more men have been doing more and more grocery shopping. It's not a new trend, says David Mick, PhD, professor of marketing at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce and president-elect of the Association for Consumer Research.
"There is no doubt that men's and women's shopping roles have changed," Mick tells WebMD. "Men are more often going into grocery stores and buying categories of things they would not have bought a generation ago. It has been going on for the last 20 years, and has been steadily rising."
More than half of men say they do 60% or more of their family's grocery shopping. The numbers don't exactly add up: More than 85% of women say they do most of their family's shopping. Still, a lot of men are pushing fleets of shopping carts through many miles of grocery aisles.
And yes, Stewart admits, more men than ever before are making the decisions on which groceries to buy.
"But that is a much more modest phenomenon than the rising trend of the female giving the male a list -- complete with brand names to buy," he says.
What about the "Mars/Venus" stereotypes? Aren't men the brave hunters who plunge into the wild aisles to emerge triumphant with exactly what they came for? Aren't women the nurturing gatherers who patiently browse for nourishment?
"Yes, it's true that men tend to go after specific grocery items while women are more likely to browse," Stewart notes. "But it is not that males are more decisive. They are basically following orders."
"Men and women probably do shop a bit differently in grocery stores on average," Mick agrees. "Women probably are less dominated by a top-down, purposive approach to shopping. They probably would be a little more exploratory. ... Women in many families are probably still expected to be the primary procurer of goods for the household. You might say it serves them in that role to have a wider radar of what is in the store and what is good for the household."
Marketers -- the people who study and implement retail selling -- know a lot about how men and women shop. They know who's making the shopping lists. So they mostly market to women.
"Manufacturers and distributors and grocery stores do a lot of things to maximize their profit per square inch of shelf and, hopefully, to increase customer satisfaction," Mick says. "They are not idiots. They do a lot of research. They track a lot of data. They know who their loyal customers are. They use this information to set up the store to be competitive."
But even the best marketers and consumer psychologists that money can buy don't ensure that you'll buy everything a supermarket has to sell.
"Do they have this down to a science so that they push everybody's button all the time? No," Mick says. "It is easy to go to an extreme thinking that marketers and grocers know things the psychologists don't even know about getting us to buy things. I don't think they have figured out things quite that much."
It's a highly competitive marketplace with razor-thin profit margins. Supermarkets focus on the bottom line, says Wesley Hutchinson, PhD, the Stephen J. Heyman Professor and professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the Association for Consumer Research.
"The grocery is trying to do a lot of things, and a lot of it is based on efficiency," Hutchinson tells WebMD. "They want to keep their loyal customers and they want to get people in and out as fast as possible. In the meantime, they try to sell you some things. They're trying to move a lot of volume through the store as fast as they can."
About 80% of grocery store purchases are straight rebuys, says Herbert Jack Rotfeld, PhD, professor of marketing at Auburn University and editor of the Journal of Consumer Affairs. That means we have a good chance of emerging from the grocery store without too much overbuying.
"I am optimistic about people's ability to handle things," Rotfeld tells WebMD. "People go in with their coupons and their lists. It's not a free-for-all."
Getting More From the Store
Rotfeld's optimism notwithstanding, there's lots of room for error. That's because two-thirds of our grocery-shopping decisions are made in the store, says Barbara E. Kahn, PhD, director of the Wharton undergraduate division and Dorothy Silberberg Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"People come in with a general idea of what they are going to buy, but their lists tend to be vague," Kahn tells WebMD. "When decisions are made in the store, you are vulnerable to cues such as corner displays, big red 'Value!' arrows, and other in-store merchandising."
Some of these cues result in impulse buying. A true impulse buy is hard to resist. That's because it's not a conscious act.
"Impulse buying is an emotional, almost out-of-control sort of desire to grab something right now without much thought for its consequence," Mick says.
But cues also get us to make unplanned purchases. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. A big red arrow, for example, may alert us to a good buy on our favorite kind of soup. We may not have planned to buy soup, but we can save a little by picking up a couple of cans now, so why not?
On the other hand, these are the kinds of sensible-seeming decisions that later make a person -- or a spouse -- say, "What were you thinking?"
Here are the experts' tips on how to get more from your trip to the store:
Values aren't price tags. "You can't leave your values at the front door," Mick says. "If you are mindful about what you choose in relation to your goals and values, you should be able to get out of the door with a basket of goods that comes closer to the satisfying and fulfilling sort of products that are best for you."
Train yourself to plan ahead. "Know what you are going to make for the week," Hutchinson says. "Do your diet planning before going to the store. Shop for what you planned for -- or at least for your general style of cooking."
Pay attention to pricing. "People don't really pay attention to pricing," Hutchinson says. "We all forget to send in the rebate coupons. And a lot of time there are little shelf pullouts that influence our purchase, but which we never actually use. We are influenced by things we think affect the price -- even a sign that claims 'good value.' Or we assume better price because of large size - something that's not always true."
Stick to your list. "Going in with a list of the things you need and sticking to it will result in you being a more disciplined shopper," Stewart notes.
Clip coupons. "Clipping coupons is a really good idea," Stewart says. "Marketers know that the vast majority of coupons go unredeemed. But you can get very substantial savings -- and some grocers will double the coupon. So there is an opportunity for very significant savings."
Don't browse if your list is short. "If you go in for milk or bread and end up doing a tour of the store -- there is a reason the store wants you to do that," Stewart says. "The more real estate a retailer can get you to traverse, the more likely it is you will buy something on impulse. So if you are trying to control your spending, don't be a browser."
Try brand X. National brands cost more, and you may find you like the store brand better.
Don't buy too many perishables. Sure, fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy. "But you could buy a shopping cart full of healthy foods and then, if you're going to be going out for a hamburger, they'll perish in the refrigerator," Stewart warns.
And, of course, there's that thing you should never tell your spouse.
"The worst time to shop is on the way home from work when it's been a long time since lunch and you're hungry for dinner. Everything in the store is going to look really good," Stewart says. "If you have somebody who is basically undisciplined, and their spouse says, "Pick up something for dinner" -- that is a risky proposition."