Why is this interesting? - The Psychology of Consumption Edition

On behavior change, grocery stores, and small nudges

Colin here. COVID is ushering in large scale behavior changes along with subtle shifts in the way we purchase and buy. We’re all obviously using more e-commerce and buying “at-home” goods and supplies, but there are also changes coming to the places we shop when commerce re-starts. How these physical spaces will adapt to both explicit and enforceable behaviors like social distancing, but also how they realign the way they present and sell products will be fun to observe. 

I was inspired by this thought from friend of WITI Scott Eshom on Twitter:

Indeed, as the lines of your Whole Foods extend much longer into the shopping aisles, these areas will become de-facto places to position higher-margin or impulse items. More people lingering in a position, spaced apart, means more time to observe the cornucopia of products surrounding you. Much as we are used to the last minute things (tabloids, gum), placed adjacent to the checkout, this mindset will extend down the aisle. This is obviously an opportunity for revenue, but also could be an incredible nudge for health and wellness. But I’m pretty sure we can all guess which one will win out.

Why is this interesting?

The entire psychology of design as it relates to buying is fascinating to me. In what seems like a relic of times past, the Balthazar menu was dissected for its magnetic forces of monetization:

Every piece of real estate on the menu has a strategic role. The piece breaks down the importance of the upper right-hand corner: 

That’s the prime spot where diners’ eyes automatically go first. Balthazar uses it to highlight a tasteful, expensive pile of seafood. Generally, pictures of food are powerful motivators but also menu taboos—mostly because they’re used extensively in lowbrow chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s. This illustration “is as far as a restaurant of this caliber can go, and it’s used to draw attention to two of the most expensive orders…”

There’s also a menu “Siberia” located on the lowest part of the entree menu, where they bury the lower-earning items. In this case, burgers.

The same tricks are used in grocery stores. According to a breakdown of the psychology in National Geographic:

After the one-way front door, the first supermarket feature you inevitably encounter is the produce department. There’s a good reason for this: the sensory impact of all those scents, textures, and colors (think fat tomatoes, glossy eggplants, luscious strawberries) makes us feel both upbeat and hungry. Similarly the store bakery is usually near the entrance, with its scrumptious and pervasive smell of fresh-baked bread; as is the flower shop, with its buckets of tulips, bouquets of roses, and banks of greenery. The message we get right off the bat is that the store is a welcoming place, fresh, natural, fragrant, and healthy, with comforting shades of grandma’s kitchen.

So, now that customers are nicely primed with fresh aromas and the vibrancy of freshly plucked nature, a bit of intentional friction is rolled out:

Dairy departments are almost invariably located as far from the entrance as possible, ensuring that customers—most of whom will have at least one dairy item on their lists—will have to walk the length of the store, passing a wealth of tempting products, en route to the milk, eggs, cheese, and yogurt. Especially popular items are routinely located in the middle of aisles, so that even the most single-minded buyer has a chance to be distracted by alternatives. Mid-aisle positioning is intended to sideline the so-called Boomerang Effect, in which some shoppers (notably men) simply head for the item they need, then return the way they came.

So, just wheeling a cart around Whole Foods or your local shopping emporium sees you moving through invisible forces and a series of nudges to help sway and alter buying behaviors. And this is even before you get to the actual products, many of which have been focused grouped, designed, and packaged to catch the eye in the street fight that is CPG on-shelf competition. 

According to McKinsey’s CPG practice, the on-premise buying behaviors are shifting in big ways in our new COVID world: “Consumers are also making 15 percent fewer shopping trips during the crisis. Combined with the uncertainty surrounding the crisis, the reduction in trips is resulting in most consumers buying enough groceries for two or more weeks per trip.”

But as store layouts are changed to account for this, what are the ways some thoughtful stores could use this idea of “nudge” towards something good rather than just pure profit? Well, the aisles where shoppers have to line up in their socially distanced queue could be a start: instead of carbs and snacks and processed foods, stocking them with healthy essentials that you don’t have to search across the store for could be a promising start. (CJN)

Podcast of the day:

New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe (MMD here) has an incredible new podcast called “Wind of Change.” It follows a piece of post-cold war rumor and innuendo down the rabbit hole and also gives a peek into what is required to do the level of investigative reporting that he does on a regular basis. (CJN)

Quick links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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