Supermarkets provide us with plenty of necessities. But your purchasing power can be greatly influenced by the grocery trade – and your health may be affected as a result. Rose Carr and Georgia Rickard explain.
Most of us have our suspicions about why milk is located at the back of the supermarket. And we probably all agree that finding soft drink and potato chips in the same aisle is more than mere coincidence.
So most of us won’t be surprised to hear that both of these things – along with everything from the location of the entrance, the store layout and the width of aisles, to the choice of lighting and music – are deliberate; the result of many years of careful research and planning. And yes – it’s all designed to get us spending more time and money in-store than we generally intend to.
Without any doubt, supermarkets provide us with a very useful service. And they aren’t trying to promote unhealthy products – they’re just interested in making a profit. But unfortunately, their end goal – to get us into their store and spending as much money as possible – doesn’t always correlate with ours. Who wouldn’t agree that it’s more difficult to be healthy when we’re faced with a display of our favourite chocolate bar, with a giant discount attached?
So how do you avoid falling for clever techniques designed to buy things you’re trying to avoid? The first step is learning to recognise them and then how to resist them and stay on track. Master this, and your health, waistline and budget will thank you for it!
The rules of engagement
Ever wondered why the first thing we see in-store, is usually fresh fruit and vegetables? According to Steve Ogden-Barnes, program director at the Australian Centre for Retail Studies at Monash University, we subconsciously consider fruit and veg to be attractive to look at – so placing them at the entrance draws us in.
“Out of every product category, fruit and veg have the highest appeal to us, so supermarkets make sure that’s the first thing we see,” Ogden-Barnes explains. “The colours, the flavours, the textures … they’re a lot more appealing than looking at a pile of tinned food.” Furthermore, he adds, “fruit and veg are also often the inspiration for making meals, so selecting specific produce can influence which other products you buy later on in-store.” Shopping for fresh produce also kick-starts a process of engagement, he says. “People pick produce up, they turn it over, they taste it .... It’s the most engaging part of the shop.” And this feeling of engagement, he continues, forces us to concentrate on our shopping experience. So even if we’re in a rush, we’ll slow down. Which potentially means spending more time in-store and maybe, spending more money, too.
Spend as much time as you like choosing fruit and veg, but remember, this section is designed to slow you down.
Common sense versus your senses
Pass the fruit and vegetable section and the bakery is usually next. This is a deliberate ploy, says David Burton, consumer shopping expert and former executive director of the Australian Food Brokers Association. “Bakeries are important,” Burton says. “Along with fruit and veg, they help cultivate a feeling of ‘freshness’, which plays an important role in shaping our perception of our shopping experience.”
Bakeries do more than that, writes Pat Kendall, a Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist at Colorado State University. “The smell of bread makes us feel hungry, and when you feel hungry while shopping, you’re more likely to buy additional items,” she states. You’re also more likely to choose unhealthy, higher kilojoule products, say British researchers.
Our sense of smell isn’t the only thing being manipulated, adds Ogden-Barnes. “There’s a whole academic discipline that looks at music, colour, sounds and smell, and how they affect our buying decisions,” he explains. Experts suggest that store floors are kept white, for example, to create an association with hygiene. And “studies have shown that if you play classical music in a wine store, the amount spent goes up,” states Ogden-Barnes. As for the ‘easy listening’ you hear in the super-market, it’s proven to increase time spent in-store; which can lead to unnecessary products in your trolley.
Listen to some upbeat music on your iPod when in-store, and ensure you never have to shop on an empty stomach again by carrying a small snack, such as nuts, with you at all times.
The checkout is a great place to display magazines for some ‘try before you buy’ reading (we would say that!). But confectionery is another deal altogether. ‘Pester power’ is a concept well-known by marketers, retailers and parents alike – although it’s not just the kids who find confectionery at the checkout tempting when waiting in line.
After observing more than 2800 people at the checkout, researchers from the US found that purchases from the range of products at the checkout were often not made immediately. Instead, the likelihood of making a purchase increased the longer someone stood in line. The presence of children significantly increased the likelihood of making a purchase (no surprises for parents here). Still, retailers know that it’s not worth making us wait longer as a sales strategy – getting us through the checkout quickly helps to gain our loyalty.
If you’re prone to temptation at the checkout, aim for the confectionery-free checkout(s) in your store. If you only have a few items, head to the express lane. The less we wait, the less likely we’ll splurge.
We expect larger pack sizes to be better value, and in many cases they are, but don’t assume that’s always the case. It’s quite common for manufacturers to change:
the size of the product, for example, making the crackers a bit smaller
the pack count, for example, down to 22 units from 24
the pack weight, for example, from an item weight of 400g to 350g.
These changes are a clever way of increasing the price without drawing your attention to it. Changes can also be a competitive manoeuvre, making the cost of their pack less than their competitors’. There’s a risk involved for these manufacturers, however: if you do notice the change, it might annoy you so much that you decide to switch to another brand. Of course, manufacturers can’t keep reducing the size of their product forever. So you may also see larger product sizes, pack counts or weights appear, with labels such as ‘family-sized’ or ‘extra large’. For the best value, check the unit pricing (see below)
Before you buy a bulk pack that looks similar great value, double-check the content, compare with similar products and, if available, check the unit pricing.
What’s on shelf
You’ll have noticed that products are categorised into various segments (such as cereals). What you don’t see is the careful planning that goes into the positioning of each product. The goal of this planning is to maximise sales and profit in the category, which is why top-selling products are always placed at eye-level: we don’t like having to reach up or crouch down. Unfortunately, the most popular products aren’t necessarily the healthiest – so this means we might not even see the best choice on shelf.
Manufacturers always want more ‘facings’ for their products, too. They theorise that their product will be more noticeable and have a better chance of being chosen, when it’s more visible. There’s also a limit to how often the shelf can be restocked, so we all – the manufacturer, supermarket and customers – want enough packs on shelf to last until the next restocking. The number of facings a product has, compared to others in the category, is generally an indicator of how well it sells.
But it’s position which ultimately matters most. Researchers in the US found that a couple of facings at eye-level did more for a product than five facings on the bottom shelf.
Look beyond products at eye-level. The lower and upper shelves may have products that are cheaper, healthier or both. To compare, check the NIP on pack.
Promotions, specials and the power of numbers
Manufacturers fund price promotions in supermarkets and pay for the right to put their product on end-of-aisle displays. They get good sales increases from these promotions – hopefully, more than enough to cover the cost of discounting.
When we see these specials, some of us stock up because they’re our favourite brand; some of us buy them because it’s habit to buy what’s cheapest; and some of us will impulsively make a switch from our usual brand because of the discount.
American research suggests that 30 per cent or more of sales from these promotions comes from the third option – and manufacturers hope that once you’ve become accustomed to using their product, you’ll stick with them.
Whatever the case, it’s a win-win for supermarkets – promotions attract more shoppers to their store.
Do numbers influence us? Brain Wansink, US researcher and author of Mindless Eating, gives a definitive ‘yes’. After a number of experiments, he and his team found sales increased with virtually any type of ‘number’ promotion.
Multiple unit pricing. For example, ‘6 for $3’ sold more product than at the same promotion price of ‘50 cents each’.
Quantity limits. For example, ‘limit 12 per customer’ increased sales.
Suggestive numbers. ‘Buy 12 for your freezer’ upped sales.
Even irrelevant numbers shifted more stock. For example, ‘Shipped to stores in boxes of 14 units’.
So how does this relate to your health? Research shows that having a stockpile of food at home makes that food more visible and more likely to be eaten in a greater amount. So buying two bars of chocolate because they’re on special can lead to unnecessary temptation. On the other hand, having cans of tomatoes in the pantry might encourage us to make a healthy meal when we have a ‘what shall I cook tonight?’ moment.
Before you buy more because it’s on promotion, ask yourself: “Do I really want to increase my consumption of this food?”
Navigating the aisles
Walk into a supermarket, and you’ll immediately step into what’s often called the ‘dwell zone’ – where the senses need to adjust to new smells, lighting, sounds and a sudden change in temperature.
Until we adjust, it’s difficult to convince us to buy anything, so this is the place you’ll find “distress goods” – things that don’t require much persuasion for us to buy them, like flowers, newspapers and cigarettes.
But excluding these goods and fruit and veg, all other essentials seem to be randomly scattered throughout the store. Or are they?
According to Ogden-Barnes, a lot of consideration goes into product placement. “Retailers are in the business of making money,” he states. “And if you have to walk all around the store to buy five items, rather than grabbing them from the front, there’s a higher chance that you might impulsively decide to buy other products.” This is why essentials like milk are at the back of the store, why pantry staples are usually in the middle of aisles, rather than conveniently located at the ends, and why the location of products can change without explanation, he says.
Refrigerated products tend to be fresher and have undergone less processing, so they’re usually healthier. Try to shop the perimeter of the store – and when you do enter the aisles, keep your blinders on!
The power of the list
In his 1999 book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, psychologist and market researcher Paco Underhill describes supermarkets as “places of high-impulse buying.” According to grocery industry studies, Underhill writes, 60–70 per cent of all purchases are unplanned. Why?
Walk into a supermarket, and you’ll probably be faced with more than 20,000 individual products, all packaged to compete for your attention. Add in a variety of price promotions, the in-store radio and some advertising on the trolley – our senses can be overloaded. Not very conducive to good decision-making!
If you want to take control, planning ahead is essential. Planning helps you get through the maze and come out the other end with what you need, rather than what caught your attention.
Start with a shopping list, says Ogden-Barnes. “If you go into a store with a shopping list and only buy those things on it, then the store doesn’t get the chance to introduce you to new products,” he explains. If you can’t manage that, try mentally specifying exactly what you want before you enter the supermarket.
Research shows that shoppers who enter the supermarket with an articulated decision, such as ‘I’m going to buy whitening toothpaste’ not only make their selection faster, but they’re happier with their purchase than the person who stands in the aisle, weighing up advantages between the different versions.
Make a decision not to buy ice-cream before you walk into the store, and when faced with the myriad of ice-cream flavours, you’ll be able to keep walking.
Write a shopping list: it really does save temptation, time and money. And stick to it – no ifs or buts!
Unit pricing means displaying the price of goods per unit of measurement, for example the cost per 100 grams. It’s great for making comparisons. Currently, supermarkets in Australia must show the unit price for meat, fruit and vegetables but not packaged goods. However, Woolworths, ALDI, Franklins and Coles stores have all committed to offering unit pricing on these items to some degree.
Did you know?
Trolleyology is the term coined by American anthropologists to describe how we evaluate others by sneaking a glance in their shopping trolley.
Australians spend around $63 billion on groceries each year.
86% of women look at price when they shop, but only 72% of men do.