Supermarket Sweep

One way to tackle food security is by changing consumer behaviour, but how do we go about doing this? Let's learn from the supermarkets.
02 February 2016

Interview with 

Eric Levy, University of Cambridge Judge Business School


In a modern globalised food system, agricultural production is only the beginning Supermarket Salesof the story. Eventually, foodstuffs make their way to the shops and that is where you come in, or where you "think" you come in! Felicity Bedford went to do her weekly shop and took along marketing expert Eric Levy to see how it's actually supermarkets that decide what you "want" to buy...

Eric - Our behaviours in the supermarket have a big influence on our health, and there's a lot of things going on in the supermarket that we don't always realise but I'm sure we'll encounter some of them with our shopping trip here.

Felicity - Let's go shopping... The first thing that I'm picking up is some apples.  In front of me I've got deals, I've got different prices, different types of apple.

Eric - Well Felicity,  the first thing I notice here is that one of the apples in particular is on sale and I think consumers will probably be drawn to getting a lot of apples - whether they eat all of them or not, who knows.  But it's kind of the attention thing; it's attention grabbing and we really like to think we're getting a good deal.

Felicity - So the deal stickers themselves are much more brightly coloured and you're right, it's the first thing I spotted when I came up to this stall but, I'm going to pick up the other pack of apples.  And only the one - there's only one of me - I don't need 12 apples for my weekly shop. Here at the milk aisle, I am presented once again with an amazing array of choice. Turning around behind me the puddings and yogurts within the supermarket; this is not something I would normally pick up but I'm sensing they've been positioned here for a reason.

Eric - So there's something in psychology called the "licensing effect" where, if you buy something healthy, all of a sudden you're going to feel really good about yourself.  You'll think "wow" I just bought this item that's really healthy, so what that allows us to do is indulge in something that's less healthy.  So, after picking up the milk, turn around and all of a sudden there's these chocolate mousse desserts and, they're on sale, we're going to be more likely to pick them up because we've just gotten the milk.

Felicity -   I'm looking toward the six for £4.  I can eat those over a couple of weeks.

Eric - Mmm.  That sound's like a good deal, doesn't it?  The number six, that's kind of, in psychology that's called an "anchor".  So consumers tend to anchor on a number that's recommended for you on the label and we might actually be more likely to get six, or maybe even four or three, compared to if there were no number there for us to anchor on.

Felicity - So, basically what the supermarket's doing is telling me - buy six?

Eric - Definitely.  One of the things supermarkets try to do is increase the amount that we purchase through some of these psychological techniques.

Felicity - And also, the fact that I'm now considering buying six is obviously having an impact upon my diet over the next few weeks.

Eric - When we have more of something there, right in front of us, we're actually more likely to eat it more quickly.  So we may think, well if I buy the six, I'll have one a week for dessert but what tends to happen is you say "well, look I have all these chocolate desserts maybe I'll have one per night" because it's there, and it's in front of you, and you're looking forward to the next dessert already.

Felicity - Finishing up the list of things that I need to be picking up today, we're going to grab some cereal and you've picked up a couple of things off the shelf for comparison purposes.  What should I be looking at on these two packets.

Eric - Well looking at these Felicity, I noticed that we have two brands of cereal that look like they're both healthy but, looking at this one, it actually has a lot, lot more sugar.  So people might think just by seeing it has bran, they're going to assume it's a very healthy cereal, maybe without comparing it to other cereals.  So it's really important to compare.

Felicity - Absolutely.  They look like they're very similarly marketed; they both say that they're whole grain guaranteed, fibre, less sugar - even though that's the one which you've just pointed outs got loads more sugar and salt within it.  The marketing is almost identical; they're both bright colours and I would have been fooled.  You're in a rush, you pick up what you know to be a reliable brand, perhaps; that's you brand marketing and also what you think from the packaging it looks like a very healthy product. I've finished my shop, I've filled up my basket.  Let's head for the checkout.

Eric - Sounds good.  Very sad that our shopping trip has come to end, but one thing I noticed is that your shopping basket there is pretty much filled to the top, or even higher.  So it actually turns out that supermarkets who have larger shopping baskets tend to get more filled in them, so people tend to fill their baskets to the top when they see a larger basket.  There's another little psychological technique that supermarkets will use on consumers.

Felicity - The pressure to make a healthy choice, to make the sustainable choice is pretty much down to consumers and we've seen that around the supermarkets, it's a very very consuming environment.  There's lots of marketing, there's lots of different signals being thrown at consumers.  Is this really the way forward in improving food security within the retail environment?

Eric - Well, I think that part of it is on consumers to know what they want.  If they want to eat healthier, want to eat things that are more sustainable, less packaging, so part of it is definitely on the consumer.  On the other hand, there's a lot of talk about legislation, for example, to stop the two for one deals or all these multiple buying thing deals.  So a lot of the times to consumers the deal will look good, but then they'll take home all the stuff and they're not going to eat it, it'll expire, and they're just going to throw it out, and it's going to be bad for the environment.  So I think there are some things that the government might be able to do well to help.

Felicity - My intentions are always good when I go shopping.  I'm intending to buy a healthy set of meals for the week ahead but that's not always how it pans out.

Eric - Well Felicity, it's not just you.  So there is a natural tendency when we have higher level values.  Say when we want to help save the environment, eat healthy.  Those are things that are a little more abstract than things like having something that's right in front of you or a lower price.  So a lot of the times when we see things tempting, in front of us, we'll tend to go with that rather than these values that we have.  So things like lists can definitely help keep you on track in doing what you want to do.  And similar to other behavioural interventions - smoking, drinking, what not - the more that you can kind of think ahead about what you want to do as opposed to just deciding on the moment, you're going to be able to take a step back and it will help you make better choices.


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