Shopping for Change

cereal aisle: kids on bottom, adults on topHow many times have you gone to the grocery store intending to pick up a few items only to walk out with a cart full? A quick trip for kale and apples (both of which were written down on a little post-it so I wouldn’t get distracted and forget one or the other) turns into a apples, lettuce, curry, olive bread, cereal, bean chips, kombucha, broth and chocolate covered pretzels (Dangit! I forgot the kale!).  After having been so thoroughly beaten by the grocery store, you would think that I would be upset with myself for my lack of fortitude and discipline.  Nope.  More often than not, I leave the store with my bounty and wonder how I could be so poorly prepared and subsequently shrug it off while shoveling Weetabix into my mouth by the bowl-full. Now I may be a little naïve, but it turns out that this has also happened to a few very smart people and their research might shed some light on my inability to escape the grocery store without spending less than $50.

Apparently it is common knowledge that staple items like milk, bread and pharmaceuticals are often placed in the back of the store in order to increase customer “foot fall” (time spent traversing the aisles to get to the desired product) and exposure to nonessential items, which tempt customers in to impulse purchases.  Grocers also stock shelves to appeal to the demographic that they are trying to reach.  For example, sugary cereals and kid favorites are placed on lower shelves, while “healthy” cereals are placed on higher up in the aisle.  Grocers are aware of customer purchase patterns and may even charge “listing” or “slotting” fees to place products on certain shelves that get more visual traffic.  This “thigh to eye” zone is generally perceived as the area that most influences customer buying decisions, which also encourages grocers to place higher margin products in this area to increase profits 1.  Unfortunately, these high margin foods are generally over-stimulating, lack nutritional value and are a driving force in the growing concern over our nations health (this idea of hyper rewarding items and our inability to control consumption can be traced back to food reward theory which you can learn more about here) .

Further, increased understanding around the “science of shopping” has illuminated the fact that while conscious, rational decision making takes into account price, selection and convenience, subconscious forces like emotion and memory also play heavily in to our buying behaviors.  For example, by placing fruits and vegetables closer to the entrance where customers generally start their shopping, grocery stores are trying to comfort shoppers by providing them the feeling that they are making wise dietary decisions and reduces any guilt that might result as they journey deeper into the “heart” of the store.  Another technique used by grocers is wafting the aroma of baked goods or freshly cut flowers throughout the store to elicit feelings of comfort and happiness. The customer knowing that the store is providing freshly made goods reduces general anxiety around food and stimulates childhood memories of time spent on Gammy’s farm where she baked fresh bread daily 2.

Avoiding the guerrilla tactics super markets employ to influence my decision-making ability is tough, but a few simple strategies help me to maintain focus and minimize the damage of impulse purchases.  These techniques include:

  1. Preparing a thorough list. This ensure that I don’t waste any time wondering around the store trying to remember everything that I need or hoping that the sight of a certain product will jog my memory.  When I have prepared a list, it is also easier for me to resist the temptation to impulse buy.  Also, I find it is easier to remain focused when stores are less crowded.  Generally Monday through Thursday.
  2. Sticking to the perimeter.  The outside of the store is generally where all the staple foods are kept, which is generally what I have on my list.  Occasionally I will venture into the “heart” of the beast to grab a can of beans or cereal, but when I do I stand at the aisle entrance, take a few deep breaths, focus my mind and sprint to and from the exact spot of my item so I don’t get distracted by all the shiny things that try to persuade me.
  3. Avoid prepared foods.  This is pretty straight forward.  Prepared foods are way overpriced and are generally made with products that I wouldn’t include in food when prepared at home.  It’s comforting for me to know exactly what I am putting into my body.
  4. Buy generic.  I have found that the store brand of staple items such as beans, spices and condiments are less expensive and fairly comparable in taste.  This is especially true if you are fond of shopping at gourmet or organic grocers.
  5. Never shop hungry.  If I leave the house on an empty stomach, I am setting myself up for impulse purchases and falling prey to quantity deals.  $.50 off 7 bottles of ketchup (which I use maybe once or twice every month) is a great deal, right?!

Beyond my own little grocery shopping world and experiences, super market psychology is now being widely discussed as a method to help fight obesity and improve dietary decision making.  According to Dr. Karen Glanz, author of a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “grocery stores can provide critical opportunities to increase access to healthy foods…[which can] potentially improve health and curtail the rise in obesity.”  Super markets can accomplish this by taking a different approach to the traditional business marketing mix: product, price, place and promotion.  If grocers, designers and public health officials collaborate to emphasize healthy food options and their benefits, tremendous gains can be made in the improving the health and wellness of adults, children, rich and poor alike 3.

Further, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Food Trust also co-sponsored an event that brought together a several industry leaders to discuss ways to prevent and reverse obesity in lower-income and multi-ethnic communities.  Focused on ways of bringing full-service grocery stores to rural and urban areas, the conference participants formulated a number of “big-picture” recommendations to help increase access to and help educate consumers on the benefits of eating healthy.  A few of the recommendations include: helping grocers make the connection between healthy diets and healthy profits, making the healthy choice the easy choice and developing a rating system to identify family-friendly stores that meet minimum defined standards for youth-oriented marketing practices.  Increasing availability and access to healthy foods, in conjunction with reducing dependence on convenience stores and other retail food outlets, will provide underserved populations with the same opportunities to make healthy food choices and reduce or reverse the onset of childhood obesity 4.

There is no doubt that full service grocery stores can be tricky places to navigate.  With the onslaught of marketing strategies that are used to influence the customer buying decision, grocery stores and food manufacturers are inhibiting our ability to make healthy choices.  Consumers must empower themselves with the ability to recognize and overcome these practices and grocers must consider the economic and social consequences that widespread obesity will have on our nation.  Together we can eliminate the ill effects that poor diet and obesity are having on our nation.

Oh!  Just when you thought we were finished.  One last chance for ice cream and/or beef jerky!

ice cream dream checkout

Don't forget your sugar rush for the car ride home, kids.


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© Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.