Did you ever consider that you could be gently persuaded to make healthier food choices at the grocery store?
Two social scientists wondered if they could use certain cues to nudge people in the right direction while grocery shopping--the direction of the fruits and vegetables. The researchers believed they had a few tricks up their sleeves that would sway shoppers to purchase healthier products. Research studies were carried out in El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces, N.M., and throughout Virginia and were funded by the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation.
One such trick was to place a mirror on the inside part of the shopping cart in order to show consumers what they looked like as they were making their grocery item selections. The hope was to increase consumers' awareness of their physical appearances, perhaps causing them to confront their weight status during their shopping trip.
The Divided-Cart Test
Another test performed at a grocery store was putting a brightly-colored piece of duct tape across the middle a shopping basket, dividing it in half, and placing a handout there telling the customers to place their vegetables and fruit in one half of the cart. Did this actually work? You bet it did--the average sales of fruits and vegetables per customer more than doubled from $3.99 to $8.85.
The Arrow Test
The same scientists looked at other areas of the grocery store where they could influence purchases of healthy items. On the floor they placed giant mats with bright green arrows pointing to the produce section, which was on the left. Customers usually walk to the right, but during this experiment the grocery store's produce manager said that nine out of 10 times, the customers went left instead.
The Cart Advertisement Test
Another test proved that cues about healthy eating have a significant impact. In the next test, the researchers hung shiny placards inside the basket part of the cart that informed customers how many fruits and vegetables an average shopper purchased (five products per trip) and what types of produce were top-selling items (limes, avocados and bananas). Did the customers bite? Absolutely. By the second week of that experiment, sales of produce had risen 10 percent. What was even more astonishing was the 91 percent increase for participants in the Women, Infants, and Children program.
Will "Nudging" Be Coming to Your Grocery Store?
It may be hard to get grocers to buy into this technique of placing cues or nudges toward healthy food purchases in their stores because although sales of produce definitely increased during these experiments, the total sales for the store stayed about the same, meaning customers were spending the same amount of money in the store but were simply buying fewer non-produce foods. This shift in purchases will ultimately be beneficial for the customer (more health-promoting nutrients, fewer highly-processed foods) and the grocer because the produce section has greater-than-average markups, making the produce aisle one of the grocer's most profitable sections of the store.
If you are mindlessly shopping for grocery items, you're more likely to fall for marketing tricks the food manufacturers use to sell cheap, nutrient-poor products. The researchers who are studying a concept dubbed "nudge marketing" by some behavioral scientists are trying to give customers just as much power as the food manufacturers currently have. The researchers say that nudge marketing will work only if the exact right amount of pressure is used to persuade consumers to make smarter food choices. Too much pressure will overwhelm people, and too little pressure won't have a large enough impact.
If these innovative and creative new tools that help remind consumers of healthy foods or of their weight could increase sales of produce, it could be a practice we see popping up in grocery stores across the nation.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.