This scene, repeated countless times every day at grocery and convenience stores, is a textbook example of impulse buying.
“Impulse purchasing represents a much, much larger component of consumer behavior than people realize,” said James Burroughs, who studies consumer patterns at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. “The front of the store is prime real estate to put impulse items.”
But how do companies select which products to place at the checkout counter? Why do we act on our impulses at the end of our shopping trips? And are there any downsides to stores capitalizing on impulse buying?
Milk in the back. Cereal near the floor
The transition to self-service supermarkets in the early 20th century helped kickstart impulse shopping.
Today, stores map out nearly every inch of their physical environment to influence shoppers’ decisions. For example, the dairy case is placed way in the back of stores, forcing customers to wander and scoop up plenty of other products before they buy milk. The meat case is often over on the other side of the store to get shoppers to walk around and toss even more items into the cart.
It’s no coincidence that tomato sauces are adjacent to the pastas and waffle cones are next to ice cream freezers — a strategy known as cross-merchandising. Cereal boxes are usually near the floor at kids’ eye level, which makes it easier for them to bug their parents to buy them.
“The lighting, the temperature, the organization of the shelves and aisles — all of that has been extensively researched and refined,” said Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “And it’s purpose is to get people to buy more products.”
Brands also pay “slotting fees” to the stores that play a critical role in product placement. Some of the best spots are eye-level placement on shelves, end-cap displays in the aisles and — most prominently — near the cash register.
Major food and beverage brands are particularly focused on getting their products placed near the checkout lane, which everyone passes through, unlike the candy and soft drink sections. (Most people seek out the candy isolate primarily on Halloween or other holidays.)
Stores put small, cheap items for quick consumption nearest the register because they’re easier for customers to toss into their carts instead of, say, an eight-pack of paper towels.
“It’s that final opportunity to add that extra item or two on the way out the door,” said the University of Virginia’s Burroughs.
There’s also a reason candy comes at the end of your shopping trip and not the beginning, marketing experts say.
By the time we finish up our shopping and get to the checkout lane, we’re typically pooped and have less will power than when we walked through the door. “People are more likely to succumb to impulse if they are fatigued,” said Burroughs. “You may be a little less guarded.”
Because of how strong our temptations can be at checkout, there has been a growing push to force retailers to nudge customers toward healthier options.
The regulation, the first in the US, requires stores to sell at least 25 square feet of healthy items within a close radius of the register.
“Berkeley’s historic action will build momentum for future efforts to improve the food retail environment at the state and local level,” the consumer group said.