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?


2 thoughts on “Thinking like an economist… about grocery stores

  1. I love this story! I am happy to hear there is research and experimentation going into finding out what will work in the grocery store to really “nudge” people in a healthier direction.
    In the article they mentioned that it is easy to be poked and prodded toward certain products if one is shopping mindlessly.
    I think it is very interesting that the approach of putting a small mirror in the cart is trying to snap shoppers out of that shopping daze. I think this can serve the purpose of helping consumers increase their intake of healthy food and also decrease the impulse and craving induced purchases. As self-centered as it is, I think this approach plays on the fact that people really like thinking about themselves. Using a mirror to remind the customer that some healthier food choices would benefit them is so personal. I think people respond to more personalized reminders as opposed to a poster or TV ad campaign.
    Also, the grocery store is such a great place for this type of campaign. The mirrors in the mall fitting rooms may remind me that I need to hit the gym before next bikini season, but there isn’t anything I can do about it while I’m at the mall! The gentle reminder in the grocery store mirror might remind me I want to make a change in what I eat, and I can do something about it with my food purchases.
    While the campaign with the mirrors are trying to make people more conscious of what they are putting in their cart, the trick of putting the arrows on the floor is a utilization of the same sneaky tricks the big manufacturers try to pull! Of course, this isn’t so shameful when it is a campaign to try and get people to eat healthy food, not junk food.
    I like the idea of putting the mirror in the cart, or other techniques to get the shoppers to consider their choices and how it relates to them. It is important to remind the consumer that what they are purchasing isn’t just a brand name, or a sugary treat, it is what they are putting into their body and what is having an effect on their health. I think few things would alert the customer to that as much as having to look at their own image as they place items in their cart that are destined for the cupboard and eventually their belly!

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