• Thinking out of the box in supermarkets

    Readers of the blog know that I’m down on many of the policy measures in place to “combat obesity”. Lots of them fail when writ large, and I’m against policies that, you know, don’t work. So I read with interest a story in the NYT on some out-of-the box ideas:

    [There’s] an effort to get Americans to change their eating habits, by two social scientists outmaneuvering the processed-food giants on their own turf, using their own tricks: the distracting little nudges and cues that confront a supermarket shopper at every turn. The researchers, like many government agencies and healthy-food advocates these days, are out to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. But instead of preaching about diabetes or slapping taxes on junk food, they gently prod shoppers — so gently, in fact, that it’s hard to believe the results.

    In one early test at a store in Virginia, grocery carts carried a strip of yellow duct tape that divided the baskets neatly in half; a flier instructed shoppers to put their fruits and vegetables in the front half of the cart. Average produce sales per customer jumped to $8.85 from $3.99.

    Here in El Paso a few months ago, the researchers focused on the floor, laying down large plastic mats bearing huge green arrows that pointed shoppers to the produce aisle. The outcome surprised no one more than the grocer.

    “In retail, the customer tends to go to the right,” said Tim Taylor, the produce director for Lowe’s, Pay and Save, a regional grocery chain that let the scientists in to experiment with their arrows and mirrors. “But I watched when the arrows were down, pointing left, and that’s where people went: left, 9 out of 10.”

    With those same guinea-pig customers, the scientists tinkered again with the cart, creating a glossy placard that hung inside the baskets like the mirrors. In English and Spanish, the signs told shoppers how much produce the average customer was buying (five items a visit), and which fruits and vegetables were the biggest sellers (bananas, limes and avocados) — information that, in scientific parlance, conveys social norms, or acceptable behavior.

    By the second week, produce sales had jumped 10 percent, with a whopping 91 percent rise for those participating in the government nutrition program called Women, Infants and Children. Lowe’s was so excited that it now plans to put the placards in every cart at its 22 stores in El Paso and nearby Las Cruces, N.M., and perhaps later at all 146 of its stores.

    This being TIE, I’d like to see some really good studies on these kids of things. But since there’s more money to be made in produce, there’s an upside for trying some of these ideas for supermarkets, and very little downside. I hope we see some more local experiments, and later some published results.

    Go read the whole thing.


    • With the pretzel burger, fry-burger and the amount of fast food success stories a 55% gain to under 10 bucks is hard for me to celebrate. #govegan

    • We’ve adopted a number of these strategies in our hospital cafeteria. Items displayed in the checkout line have been changed from candy bars and other snacks to water bottles and fresh fruit, the chips display has been arranged so the “Baked” low fat products face the customer and you have to walk around to the back of the display to find less healthy versions, pricing has been adjusted so a grilled chicken sandwich costs the same as a burger (instead of nearly a dollar more), and “grill more Mondays” have been introduced where no fried foods are allowed and patrons are offered grilled squash, zucchini, and sweet potatoes instead of fries. We haven’t attempted to measure the impact of the interventions, but they are grounded in the hook and nudge marketing concepts.

      • My hospital was a bit more heavy handed. The new CEO simply threw out most of the unhealthy foods we used to have, and threatened the local franchises in the cafeteria with eviction if they didn’t offer healthy options.

    • This is all well and great. But outside of the supermarket, individuals will face countless other nudges from the food industry, from the soft drink companies, from snack companies, from fast food restaurants, etc. Plus, what if the increased revenues from produce were offset by decreased consumption of other items? Then it would be against the supermarkets’ best interests to participate.

    • These are interesting results, but we need followups to confirm people are actually eating these healthier foods. At least according to this: http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf households end up throwing away 25% of the food they buy. So, getting people to buy healthier food is necessary, but not sufficient.