If you’ve ever walked into a grocery store and followed your well-intentioned list to the letter only to be derailed at the checkout by a candy bar calling your name, you’re not alone.
While you may be consciously aware of (and maybe even think you’re immune to) the never-ending marketing ploys at the supermarket, a new study illustrates that just the placement of a particular type of food can alter our behavior and affect what we put in our carts (and therefore, our stomachs).
What prompted the research
Over the past few years, some supermarkets in the United Kingdom have voluntarily adopted a policy to remove less healthy food (think candy, chips, and chocolate) from the checkout line. This policy gave researchers a unique opportunity to explore if and how much of an effect the placement of these types of food had on consumers’ purchases.
In each supermarket that had implemented a policy, researchers compared consumers’ purchases of common, less healthy foods before and after the policy was enacted to see if and how they had changed.
Researchers found that after the checkout policies were enacted, there was an immediate 17 percent reduction in the purchase of these common checkout foods. A year later, consumers were still purchasing more than 15 percent less of these foods than they had before the policies were put in place. (So no, they didn’t spend the time to search for them elsewhere in the store.)
Another, and perhaps more surprising, result came when they looked at what effect the policies may have had on the checkout foods consumers’ bought specifically to eat right away, before getting home. When they compared the data of on-the-go purchases from 7,500 consumers between 2016 and 2017 at supermarkets with and without checkout policies, they found that there were 76 percent fewer annual purchases of on-the-go foods at those with policies versus those without.
Another way to look at it? Simply removing these foods from the checkout removed the prompt that was leading shoppers to make impulse food purchases and mindlessly eat on the go.
What this means for your next trip to the grocery store
While the researchers were upfront about the limitations of this study (such as not being able to definitively confirm where in the store a customer selected an item or whether the change in consumers’ purchasing behavior had an effect on consumption), it does suggest there are outside factors that impact our food choices maybe more than we realize.
If our eating habits are literally influenced simply by what is placed in our paths, the potential impact that these types of policies could have if they were adopted on a larger scale is huge.
However, since they’re currently limited to a specific location (and the checkout lines at the majority of grocery stores are still brimming with Snickers and M&Ms), it brings to light the importance of mindful eating.
Fortunately, just being aware of our own susceptibility to food placement in the grocery store (and beyond), can remind us to make a more conscious choice in the checkout line, so that we can eat treats as conscious indulgences, not as thoughtless sources of sugar we’ve forgotten before we’re even home unpacking groceries.
Karlie Bryant is a writer, food-photographer, and mindset nutrition coach. She is Nutritious Life Certified and has a BA in anthropology from UCLA. Through her blog, Diet Confessionals, Karlie speaks candidly about her struggles with food and body image in order to help other women avoid the struggles she went through. Raised in Michigan, she currently lives in Southern California and works in post-production for a major TV studio. Visit her website at dietconfessionals.com and follow her non-diet approach to life on Instagram at @dietconfessionals.