I went with Trey and Evalynn to grocery stores to observe purchasing patterns of customers. According to our observations, food that is closer to eye level may have a greater influence on our shopping habits than other healthier, and possible cheaper products.
1. Selections at Grocery Stores are Based on Neighborhoods
We checked out the Whole Foods near East Liberty first. This store is located in a busy hub near the new developments by the Googleplex. The primary demographic for this neighborhood includes hipsters and techies under 35. There were also a lot of older people at this super market, closer to retirement age. This Whole Foods does not have as big of a selection as the one in Wexford in bulk foods, but at least three times the amount in bulk coffee. The two things we observed in this location were bulk foods and the chocolate section.
At the beginning of the semester, I took Evalynn with me to go to whole foods at the same store. She never before went into a Whole Foods and seemed amazed at the selection. I remember her saying “It’s impressive to think that all the things that we see around us, had to be brought here from somewhere else.” I remember suddenly becoming aware of my surroundings and contemplated the vast amount of effort and planning that was involved in making this store exactly the way it should be. We then walked around until she found the bulk section and became really excited when she found the bulk mangos. She bought a bunch of them, and we went back to the main campus to share them with some friends.
2. Cheaper Food is Usually Hiding From Average Eye-Sight Level
Fast forward to about a week ago, Trey and I were looking around at the bulk food section and he found the same bulk mangos on a nearby shelf for about $0.20 cheaper per pound than the bulk section. Trey is about eight inches taller than me, and at least a foot taller than Evalynn. Neither Evalynn or I saw the cheaper option before because it was on a top shelf. I then became fascinated with the idea that product placement may matter more than the product itself.
About a year ago, I was having lunch at Trey’s house and he offered some chocolate. I later recognized the same brand when I was at the Whole foods in Wexford. The chocolate that Trey had was at the same eye level for him. It got me thinking about product placement there as well. The chocolate I buy on a regular basis is conveniently at eye level for me. I wondered if the reason I kept buying that specific brand of chocolate was because it was at eye level. I also remember when I took Evalynn to Whole foods that one time and realized that she bought chocolate at eye level for her. Is it really that we are most likely to be more drawn to a product just simply because it is at eye level?
3. Location on the Shelf is Sometimes Marketed Towards Gender
I wanted to test out this hypothesis when I went to the Whole Foods with Trey near East Liberty. I said that I wanted to look at the chocolate in order to test out a hypothesis, but did not give any further explanation until we got there. Then, I simply asked Trey if he was most likely to buy chocolate, which kind would he get. Conveniently, the East Liberty store and the Wexford store had the same brand in a different location. We also checked out the chocolate section at the East End Co-Op and asked the same question without context on what I was looking for.
Both times, Trey went for a brand of chocolate that was not just at eye level, but nearly right in front of him. It didn’t even matter that the brands changed, or that all the brands were available at both stores. Now, in order to validate this hypothesis, I would need to experiment with more than just one or two people. However, the small experiment motivated me to look up research related to my hypothesis.
4. Almost All Grocery Stores Encourage Fights for Eye Level Foods
Upon further inspection, I found that this is a widely accepted phenomenon utilized by supermarkets. Kendell (2014) states that products at eye level are likely to sell better than those positioned directly above or below. Eye level products are in turn more likely to be more expensive than those positioned elsewhere.
Another interesting phenomenon is that according to Young (2015,) brand name or inexpensive items are usually placed on the top and bottom shelves because most people will only notice the middle shelves. Young (2015) also states that the second from the bottom shelf is usually reserved for children in grocery stores. I noticed, especially in the bulk food section, that the candy and sweet things were located at this level… like the mangos. I have yet to find a study that accurately correlates increased consumption of these products by people who are 5’ or shorter. However, I think there might be a reason why Evalynn noticed the bulk mangos easier than I did.
5. Placement of Foods Actually Drives Sales
I also wonder about the placement of the mangos on the top shelf. Since they were higher up, they were also less expensive, which fits into Lempert’s (2002) theory that inexpensive items are placed at the top and bottom shelves. Trey had to reach to find those mangos at the top shelf, and there is no way I would have noticed them on my own. But then again, I’m not tall, nor could have I reached the product on my own even if I wanted to.
It got me thinking about the consequences of such an arrangement within supermarkets. Utilizing these tricks of psychology is counteractive to the whole “Vote with your dollar” fallacy, that a majority of Americans seem to believe. How can you really enact free will if you are being so heavily influenced by what grocery stores want you to see and therefore purchase?
6. All the Impulse Buys Are Located Closer to the Checkout Because You’re Tired of Making Decisions
According to Kahneman (2011), people are less likely to practice free will as time goes on or glucose levels become depleted. This explains fatigue after doing a task repeatedly, and not making healthy choices. Grocery stores play into this bias with tricks like placing more expensive food in locations that are more likely to be purchased. In regards to food deserts and people in poorer communities, there is limited freedom of choice. Children are especially affected by poverty, and also are influenced by placement of unhealthy, more expensive foods.
7. “Voting with Your Dollar” is a Myth that Only Hurts the Poor
If we are serious about helping out the less fortunate, we need to abolish this idea that we should “vote with your dollar.” It is one thing if you are a privileged person who will never be at risk for food insecurity to waste a couple dollars when going to the grocery store. It is another thing to not give people who already have limited choices, to begin with, further limited choice, or no choice at all, and wonder why they aren’t healthy.
Placing more expensive foods at eye level is fine, but if the only way to combat overspending is by understanding grocery store psychology, then a large portion of the population will be at a disadvantage and likely to consume unhealthier diets.
A simple example of chocolate placement or bulk placement is just the beginning of a broad scope of psychology in grocery stores. It is imperative to question the assumption that people’s unhealthy habits are always a product of choice. Sometimes they are not, for placement of products and food deserts, in general, have a great deal to do with consumption.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Kendell, K. (2014). The science that makes us spend more in supermarkets, and feel good while we do it. Retrieved October 30, 2016, fromhttp://phys.org/news/2014-03-science-supermarkets-good.html
- Lempert, P. (2002). Being the shopper: Understanding the buyer’s choice. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Young, D. (2015). The Secrets Behind Your Grocery Store’s Layout. Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/shopping-storing/more-shopping-storing/grocery-store-layout