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Check Yourself Out! The Science of Supermarket Design

Supermarkets are designed to trick you into buying more than you planned to. Can marketing psychology be used to push healthy foods instead?

Supermarkets have been designed for a high turnover of a huge inventory, with as little help as possible from employees. They accomplish this by employing tricks to get you to buy more food than you planned to. And that affects not just your wallet, but also your waistline, because supermarkets are often pushing less healthy, processed foods.

In a recent piece on Marketplace, Greg Warner looks into one initiative in Philadelphia that's trying to make its stores healthier with the help of Karen Glanz, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She's been looking into how supermarkets can reverse childhood obesity (PDF).

Aside from the unlikely proposition of moving those piles of soda and chips from the high-value, high-visibility real estate at the end of the aisles, she suggests taking the sugary cereals off the bottom shelves, where it targets young children. Adding little cardboard "shelf-talkers" can also help healthy foods stand out from the pack in a crowded aisle. And something as simple as placing healthy and unhealthy items next to each other also make their differences more apparent. (It's worth pointing out that a "product contagion" effect works the other way; marketing researchers Andrea C. Morales and Gavan J. Fitzsimons found that placing rice cakes next to lard apparently makes us think they're more fattening).

What's even more surprising is how checkout lines could cut a supermarket's bottom line and change our habits. Warner reports:

Self-checkout doesn't have the gauntlet of candy bars. Some industry consultant calculated that that an average American woman could lose four pounds a year just going through self-checkout.


These everyday marketing solutions are worth taking into consideration whether you're redesigning the supermarket or thinking about the psychological tricks of the grocery trade—even if it might be bad news for Butterfingers, the National Enquirer, and the stereotypical first summer job.

Drawing via "Customized self-checkout system," 2003.

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