Thinking like an economist… about grocery stores

One good opportunity to improve public health is in grocery stores, as psychologists and economists work together to help retailers increase sales of, well…  groceries.

Today’s New York Times has a terrific news story about this frontier of research by their reporter Michael Moss.  Moss just released a lively new book about how food manufacturers raise the levels of salt, sugar, fat and other ingredients in processed foods far beyond what you’d add in your own kitchen, while research at Tufts and elsewhere has shown similar problems in restaurant food.  In contrast, grocery stores sell a lot of fruits, vegetables and other relatively healthy stuff,  generally around the perimeter of the store.  So, in the choice between processed foods, restaurant foods, and plain old groceries, what determines how consumers’ spend their hard-earned money?

Advertising.  Taste and convenience are also important, as is factual information about nutrition and health.  But those things are often hard to change, in which case advertising can provide the swing vote that nudges consumers towards what they actually buy.  The effectiveness of advertising helps explain why we see so much of it.

The research featured in today’s NYT is about a great new display ad being tested in grocery store shopping carts:  a mirror, reflecting the shopper’s face back at them.  The researchers’ hypothesis is that commercial ads distract people from their own desires, so that a mirror reminding consumers of who they really are would nudge them back towards choices they are less likely to regret later when they leave the store.

What do you think?  Where might a mirror help you make more optimal choices?

And to continue thinking like an economist, consider the problem from the store’s point of view:  in your experience, when do they try to sell you things you might later regret, as opposed to helping you find things that actually fit the long-term you?

 

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