According to science, one simple trick can help jog your memory.

By Andrea Beck
March 21, 2019

It’s happened to the best of us—you plan out what you’re going to make for the week, write a detailed grocery list with everything you need, drive to the store, then open your bag to realize that carefully-written list is still lying on your kitchen counter. Unless you want to head back to retrieve it and then make another trip to the store, your only option at that point is to wing it.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Steve Debenport

Luckily, there’s a strategy you can follow when you realize you’ve left that all-important list (whether handwritten or on your phone) behind. According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, especially if you’re buying items that aren’t usually on your list, wandering the aisles can help you remember what you need to grab.

The researchers tested this in a few different ways. In one experiment, they gave participants a list of 10 to 20 produce items to buy. Half of the participants were given lists with familiar items like bananas and broccoli, while the other half were given a list of less common items, like coconuts and figs.

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Then, participants were asked to find the products in an online grocery store. One group was told they could only find the products by browsing the online store, one group was told they could only use the search bar, and the last group was told to find the products however they wanted. Overall, participants did a better job of remembering to buy the common items. But the researchers found that fewer participants were able to remember the less-common items when they were only allowed to use the search function, and that people were more likely to remember they were supposed to buy unusual items, like coconuts, when they could browse the online store.

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They also surveyed consumers about their shopping habits, and what best helped them jog their memory in an actual grocery store. The researchers found that when participants were shopping for items that they didn’t usually buy, they were more likely to remember what they needed if they walked through most of the aisles in the store. However, participants also responded that they were more likely to remember common items without wandering the store.

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Basically, if you buy a bag of apples every time you go to the grocery store, you probably won’t need a list to help you remember to grab them. But if you had a couple of items on your forgotten list that you don’t buy very frequently, a bit of wandering can help jog your memory. The idea is that as you wander the aisles, you’re more likely to see the item you need, or something similar (just entering the cheese section might be enough to remind you that you’re out of Parmesan), and that will bring up the memory of the unusual item you need.

So while we all like to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible, if you forget your list, taking your time could be worth it. A little bit of extra browsing could remind you of a few things you need to buy that you don’t usually pick up when you make a trip to the store (no promises that you won't end up with a few other foods you're craving, though).

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