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What Influences Supermarket Decisions? A New Video Helps Explain


Although shoppers make the ultimate decisions about what foods and beverages to purchase at the supermarket, their choices are influenced by a number of subtle marketing techniques, as illustrated by a new whiteboard lecture created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The 11-minute video, styled after popular whiteboard talks on YouTube, animates a lecture by Leader Dr. Margo Wootan on three techniques that food companies and retailers use to influence customer purchases in the supermarket. “Even the best intentioned and most disciplined person can’t always be in control of what she eats, and – importantly – this can happen without her even realizing it,” Wootan says.  

Ever walk into the supermarket planning to buy bread and milk, and also walk out with a Snickers bar? This video provides a window into understanding how that can happen.

First, the lecture explores the concept of the unconscious mind, explaining how shoppers rely on habit and are often in autopilot mode as they engage in routine activities like shopping. Next, the video explains how defaults – related to food formulations, food pairings, and package sizes – change which foods and beverages people purchase and how much they consume. Third, the lecture dives into willpower reserves, explaining that most people resist temptation regularly, but it is harder to do when willpower reserves are low, such as when people are tired, overwhelmed, distracted, or have already made a lot of decisions, like navigating through the 40,000 products in a typical supermarket.

Companies could use their marketing genius and these same three strategies to support health rather than undermine it.  

It has worked before: when Google moved M&Ms out of sight at their office snack station, they reduced employee calorie consumption by 3.1 million calories over 7 weeks. And, when Disney changed the defaults at their parks, offering healthy beverages and fruits and vegetables as side dishes with children’s meals, two-thirds of families stuck with these healthier options.  

The video, which has been viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube and Facebook, challenges viewers to imagine what supermarkets would look like if companies used their full arsenal of marketing techniques to promote healthy foods and beverages. “What if supermarkets had fresh smells and images of fruit throughout the store?” asks Wootan. “What if they had arrows pointing to the vegetable section, checkout displays with fresh and healthy options, smaller packages and no unhealthy food marketing to children?”

CSPI is actively working to improve supermarket environments, beginning with challenging the placement of candy, soda and other unhealthful foods at checkout. Last year, the organization released a study of chain stores in the Washington, D.C. area, which found that the majority of food and beverage offerings are candy, soda, and chips. This summer, CSPI will be releasing a major report that explores the psychological concepts outlined in the whiteboard lecture and explains why changing the foods and beverages at checkout is a public health imperative. The report will also include policy recommendations for health departments, elected officials and advocates in the field. Watch the video here