'Planned' Impulse Purchases

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

 Grocery Store Head Game

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario Does it happen to you, too? You're cruising the aisles at the grocery store and suddenly, it hits you. Milk is what you really need, but a box of Bisquick or Frosted Flakes or Rice-A-Roni beckons from a heap stacked head high, blocking your path to the dairy case.

If this sounds familiar, then like most of us, you've succumbed to the desire to buy foods that you had no intention of buying before you went into the store. And for those of us interested in good nutrition and weight management, it is important to at least be aware that an army of merchandisers is working hard to get you to pick up and buy a specific brand of product or an item you didn't know you wanted.

How do they do this? Well, it's all about psychology and strategy, which may or may not be in line with your nutrition goals.

That's why "it's important to be aware of what it is you are going to the store to buy and how your buying decisions influence your eating habits," says Lola O'Rourke, RD, a nutrition consultant and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Influencing Your Decisions

"Some research says that as much as 85% of purchasing decisions are made in the aisle while a consumer is looking at a product," says Michael Schiller, executive vice president and research director at Data for Decisions in Marketing, a consulting group based in Fairlawn, Ohio. "The decision criteria to buy, or not to buy, will vary widely from shopper to shopper, but in-store merchandising definitely has a big impact on consumers' choices."

There are four basic shopping "behaviors" in the buying process in grocery stores and other in-store retail environments, says Schiller.

1. Passing Behavior -- This is when you are walking into the store flicking your eyes around, taking it all in, but not really looking for a specific item yet.

2. Looking Behavior -- You turn your head to see displays of products that interest you, even if the product is not on your grocery list.

3. Shopping Behavior -- You stop and look at the product. You may take it off the shelf or display case and read the packaging or nutrition information and consider the item.

4. Selection Behavior -- This is big retailing moment. You decide either to drop the item in your cart or you put it back and go on your way.

Some of the techniques retailers use to get you to the all-important "selection behavior" are apparent. There are the in-aisle displays, the coupon dispensers with flashing lights, the person doling out free samples, the heavily loaded end caps at the end of each aisle, among others.

But there are other, subtler means of making a sale. Manufacturers can usually pay the grocery store to give their products better placement on shelves. Packaging is designed to play on our images of ourselves, or how we would like to see ourselves. A store's layout also comes into play.

"Produce and dairy and other staples often are placed as far from the front door of the store as possible," says O'Rourke. "That way you have to walk past all the more expensive and probably less nutritious foods before you get to what you wanted."

But consumers can do a lot to pass those items and keep from making impulse purchases.

"Go prepared with a list of what you need to get," O'Rourke says. "That may sound obvious, but the next time you go into the store to buy something specific without bringing a list, see what you come out of the store with. Chances are you've got much more than what you went in to buy, and much of that may not be real, nutritious food."

One of the worst things to do is to go to the store hungry.

"People are much more suggestible in the store environment when they are hungry," she says. "And that plays into the techniques marketers use to promote products. It really pays to go to the store prepared with a list that you try to keep to and to be aware that so much in the store is strategically placed to catch your interest."

Many local hospitals are helping to improve our nutrition decisions by sponsoring grocery store tours with registered dietitians, according to the American Dietetic Association. These tours go by different names, such as Heart Healthy Shopping Tour or ShopWell. Check with your local hospital to see if it offers a tour. It's a great way to learn more about buying healthier food for your family.

Published Dec. 30, 2002.

SOURCES: Michael Schiller, executive vice president and research director, Data for Decisions in Marketing, Fairlawn, Ohio • Lola O'Rourke, RD, nutrition consultant, American Dietetic Association.

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