Tuesday 27 September 2022

20 Scams and Sneaky Tricks at Costa Rica Supermarkets

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You try your best to save a few colones every time you hit the supermarket, but you’re probably still spending more than you should. Thanks to the psychological tricks of manufacturers and retailers you’re likely getting cheated – or at least manipulated into spending more – every time you walk in the door.

Following is our list of common supermarket scams in Costa Rica so that you can me a bit more wise of what happens you browse the aisles.

Hot, Fresh Lies for Sale

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Many ‘supers’ have an on-site bakery that bakes bread, donuts, and other pastries from scratch. But others simply cook up frozen sent from outside manufacturers. They arrive raw and are baked and packaged in store. So while you think you’re money is being spent on fresh items, you’re really just spending cash for previously-frozen goods. That’s not to say all frozen items are bad.

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. Orange juice is one of the main waterlogged juices. Other juices, like the trendy pomegranate juice, are cut with other juices—like apple juice—to increase volume. Our advice is to skip the juice altogether; the too-sweet beverages have been shown to make you fat.

Honey Hold-Up

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Adding a big squeeze 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. 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 per pound because of this water weight.

Virgin Olive Oil, Oh No!

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Olive oil is a $1.5 billion business in the United States, making it a huge target for fraud. According to Forbes, as much as 80% of Italian olive oil marketed as extra virgin is actually cut with other oil. Luckily, an Italian operation led to the arrest of 33 people believed to be running this scam in 2017, so these fraudulent oils could be leaving grocery store shelves soon.

Produce Psychology

Every supermarket 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.

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% 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.

Some stores like Maxmenos has the small carts, but try to find one. At the Automercado the small carts are up front, while at Pricesmart there is only one size, big.

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 supermarket shelf. Where did your eyes look first? The middle. Retailers know this and put the most expensive products there, knowing you’ll just grab the first can or box you see. Distributors often pay for this ‘prime real estate’. Next time, look up or down a bit, try comparing the prices of products placed above and below—often you’ll find big price differences for a similar product.

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 past — and possibly pick up — plenty of other products on the way.

Sneaky Deals

A store advertises X products for X colones. It seems like a pretty good deal—it’s X! It is, until you read the fine print that says you have to buy all X to get them for X each, otherwise they’re Y for one. Masxmenos stores currently have a 4 X 3, that is get 4 items for the price of 3, but you have to buy all 4 to get the for 3 price. Buy just one, two or three and you pay the full for each. You don’t need 4, 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. Supermarkets 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 Changes

You just figured out where everything is located in your favorite supermarket 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.

Maxmenos stores are legendary for this. Just when you got used to a layout, you are lost again, having to rediscover all your favorites. And each time, at least for me, I get the feeling the store has brought in new products  – a real treat in Costa Rica – but not really, they were always there.

In-Your-Face Smells

Just walking into a supermarket 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!

Free Samples

There’s a reason why supermarkets dole out samples regularly—these freebies get 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. Pricesmart is the king in free samples if you time your visit right, and on the right day, you can actually have a free lunch.

Are They Actually Selling the Creme de la Creme?

OREO cookies have been one of the best-selling cookies in the U.S. since they were invented in 1912, but the recipe has undergone some changes. Depending on your age, you may have noticed that since the 1990s they’ve been called OREO Crèmes—note the absence of the word cream. That’s because Nabisco switched from a lard-based filling to a dairy-free one made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. While some people thought a dairy-free filling means the cookies are vegan, Nabisco confirmed that because the cookies have cross contact with milk, they aren’t suitable for vegans.

Grated Parmesan

By now, you’ve probably gotten wise that the 100 percent “real” grated Parmesan cheese you’ve been buying is probably far from that. Lots of grated “Parmesan” is from scraps of different sorts of cheeses. Experts say that it’s not a food safety issue, but is a deceptive practice.

Maple Syrup?

Next time you reach for maple syrup, take a closer look at the packaging. There’s a reason that most nationally recognized brands of pancake syrup—think Aunt Jemima—don’t mention maple on their label and instead say “original syrup.” It’s because the apple has fallen very far from the tree and there’s nothing maple about these syrups, which are basically artificially flavored high fructose corn syrup.

You’re Tricked Into Buying the Wrong Vanilla

While real vanilla extract is made by soaking expensive vanilla pods in alcohol, many products you’ll find in the grocery store are actually imitation vanilla. Imitation vanilla is made with vanillin (the flavor compound that makes vanilla taste like vanilla), which is synthesized in a lab. It’s a whole lot less expensive—and less nuanced—than real vanilla extract. But most culinary experts at this point agree that for baking the difference is hardly discernible; applications that aren’t hit with high heat, like ice cream, are a better use for the pricey stuff. If you want the real stuff, make sure the label says “pure vanilla extract.”



– – – –

The list was inspired from article “40 Scams and Sneaky Tricks at the Grocery Store” by Eat This, Not That! on MSN.com.

I’ve adapted the list to fit the deceptions used at Costa Rica supermarkets, a practice that has grown over the years since the arrival of Walmart and Pricesmart and their American influence on grocery shopping. Though the stores aren’t as huge as in the U.S. or Canada, the deception can be.

Don’t believe me, visit a ‘pulperia’ or an independent grocery store (hard to come buy in the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) and you may find a refreshing change to grocery shopping. Or maybe not.




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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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