Creating healthier supermarket layouts

Minor 'nudges' in stores can lead to big increases in healthy purchases and drops in sales of sweets.
17 September 2021


A supermarket aisle empty of people.


Reshuffling our supermarkets can lead to dramatic changes in our buying habits...

Supermarkets play a hugely important role in our lives. Not only do they provide most of us with our food, but in doing so, they influence the products we choose to eat - whether for good or for bad. How many of us can truly say that we’ve never succumbed to the lure of a checkout chocolate bar?

But what if supermarket layouts were optimised for healthiness instead? A new pilot study in PLOS Medicine has demonstrated that a set of simple in-store modifications can lead to dramatic changes in people’s buying habits, potentially resulting in around 10,000 extra portions of fruit and vegetables and 1,500 fewer portions of confectionery being sold per week per store.

“It shows the incredible potential of supermarkets to support consumers and make healthy choices easy”, said Helen Brown of the Behavioural Insights Team, an expert in how our environment impacts our decisions who was not involved with the study.

These results were achieved by simply placing fresh fruit and vegetables by store entrances, moving frozen fruit and vegetables to the first aisle and removing confectionery from near checkouts.

Encouragingly, fruit and vegetable sales increased over time, suggesting that habit formation began to occur among customers. Perhaps even more importantly, this was achieved at almost no cost to the supermarket’s bottom line - something that may be crucial in getting supermarkets onboard with such ideas.

The aspect that Helen found most exciting, though, was that “these interventions were trialled in discount supermarkets, located in economically deprived neighbourhoods. This is really important, as we know that obesity and poor diet is socio-economically patterned, and so research in areas of low income is much, much needed.”

Altering layouts is just one potential step on the path to improving our diets. Helen described an Oxford University study in which price promotions on fruit resulted in an almost 400% increase in sales when combined with a superhero advertising campaign. And all of this is without even mentioning the potential within food delivery services, a sector which has boomed during the pandemic.

As Helen put it, “there is a whole suite of interventions we can use to really shape the environment in which we are shopping, both online and in store, to ensure that the healthy option is absolutely the easiest, the quickest and really supports us in making good choices.”


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