The modern supermarket is more than a place to buy food and essential items. It is a living testament to the power of psychological influences that can shape consumer behaviour. The type of music played, lighting levels, product promotion, pricing and of course the placement of products can all shape purchasing habits.

The supermarket checkout is a fertile domain for supermarkets to have a final influence on the shopper. Checkouts provide a unique location for prompting purchases as all customers have to pass through them to pay and may spend time in queues. Unhealthy snack foods are the staple options here for the ultimate in impulse purchases. That chocolate bar looks oh so tempting to add as a final item to the shop.

In the United Kingdom, advocacy groups, the media, and researchers have voiced ongoing concern about the nutritional quality of food at supermarket checkouts.

In response to public concerns and campaigns, some United Kingdom supermarkets have implemented policies to reduce the availability of less-healthy food at checkouts. So how effective was this policy change on consumer behaviour?

A team of researchers looked at purchases of unhealthy checkout foods brought home from over 30,000 households both 12 months before and 12 months after implementation of the unhealthy snack food policy.

A survey of consumer behaviour after supermarkets removed confectionary and chips from the checkout area found a dramatic reduction in the amount of unhealthy food purchased by shoppers.

For food bought from a supermarket which introduced the policy, there was a 17 per cent drop in purchases of confectionary and chips and this reduction stayed constant for a year after the policy was brought in.

The research team also looked at food items purchased and eaten ‘on the go’ before making it back home. Take home purchases are more likely to be planned, whereas on-the-go purchases are more likely to be impulsive.

Here, there was a 76 per cent drop in on-the-go food items bought from supermarkets which introduced the checkout food policy.

Implications

Removing unhealthy food items from the checkout can help to reduce the amount that people buy. Whether replacing these foods with more healthy items can spur behaviour in a positive direction is a question for future research.

Last Reviewed: 25/02/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Ejlerskov KT et al. Supermarket policies on less-healthy food at checkouts: Natural experimental evaluation using interrupted time series analyses of purchases. PLOS Medicine 2018;15:e1002712 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002712.