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Health beyond the horizon

Conspiracy or commercialism: are our supermarkets manipulating us?

Flickr / kitschkitten.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t get in and out of a supermarket without spending twice as much as you planned. Whatsmore, you always leave with three or four things you don’t really need and never went there to buy. Those incredible bargains at the ends of the aisle; or delicious sweets at the checkout; the cooled fizzy-drinks placed just at the exit; or the most tantalising of treats at eyeing or grabbing height…

An annoying, but random eventuality - or is it?…


Believe it or not, there is nothing random about the supermarket environment. The lack of windows; the generic, streamlined layout; the long aisles - and even the bargains at their ends. Supermarket design is anything but random. In fact, your local chain grocer is about as evidence-based as the latest issue of the Lancet!

Layout is scientific - finely tuned and carefully crafted to make you hungry, make you buy and even influence what you buy. Now I know this sounds like conspiracy theory, but forget the little green men - this is the real deal. The moment you walk in and grab your trolley, the experience has been purposefully manipulated to guide your decisions in a direction that suits the supermarket and their major brands.

Flickr / Polycart.

Here are three examples of what I mean.

One. Quite the casino.

Ever noticed you spend three times longer than planned at the chain grocer?

Supermarkets generally have no windows and as such, no natural light or reminders of the outside world. In a similar way that casinos have no windows, this is to limit our reference to the time of day and along with the bland, generic and streamlined interior - encourage us to stay longer and therefore buy more.

It’s also been shown that brighter lighting may increase the chances of us picking up a product and background music can increase the time we spend in a store. Even spotlights at the ends of aisles have been shown to increase the time we spend looking at the products under them!

Two. Chockies at the checkout.

The Achille’s heel of any shopper, those sweets and treats at the checkout are no accident either. Impulse shopping is again well studied and retailers know what products will sell - what brands, at what price and in what combination. Note the lack of home-brand options, let alone healthy alternatives!

High margin, high fat, high sugar and high salt - that is the recipe for the checkout.

Flickr / roberthuffstutter.

Three. The Science of Placement.

This is the part that really fascinates me!

Based on eye-movement studies from as far back as the 1960s, products are even placed on shelves at levels and stages in the aisles to maximise interest and boost sales. Products which bring the largest profit margins (often calorie-dense) are placed at eye level or even between two shelves of ‘essentials’ to ensure they’re seen by shoppers.

Even within the store itself, staples and perishable items have long been placed at the very rear of the store as this ensures we walk through the entire shop to get our daily milk and eggs. Passing the chocolate, cakes and ice-cream on the way.

Again, all based on solid evidences, not a store-manager’s hunch.

What about those discounts on the aisle-ends? Chosen and stocked with precision. Combinations of products are carefully paired and cases are filled to ensure that the products whilst being discounted, don’t appear cheap. Researchers also know that by placing discounted cake mix next to cake icing, or crisps near soft drink - increases the sales of both! We go to buy one (and often none), realise it would be better with both and end up buying the pair!

Finally, aisle lengths are not even random - studies have been done and the verdict is in. The longer the aisles, the more products one has to pass to get to what we want - and the more likely we are to buy more things. But too long, and we won’t pass down them at all.

It’s all a careful formula.

Flickr / Dylan_Payne.

Eyes Wide Open.

Now there is not necessarily anything wrong with the fact that supermarkets are being designed to increase consumption and manipulate our buying habits. It is their space and their profit margins, but we had better be aware!

Commercialism or coercion?

So next time you walk into the supermarket, reflect for a moment on what is placed where and how this influences your choices. Make active decisions on what you buy and stick to a list if you can (good luck!).

Be under no false pretences, the supermarket environment is a finely crafted science, and not a random collection of products. But whether it’s just aesthetic acts, or commercial coercion, I will let you decide. One this is for sure, the supermarket chains know exactly what they’re doing - and now you do too.


flickr / rich

Connect with Sandro on Twitter via @SandroDemaio.

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