Supermarkets can be a place where our best healthy eating intentions go out the window – often thanks to that chocolate on special or those 2-for-1 biscuits. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls and shop smarter.
Wheeling your trolley around the local supermarket every week seems like a straightforward business: you look for what you want, pop it into your trolley and you’re done. So, how is it that by the time you get to the register your trolley contents don’t match the list you started out with? Perhaps it was the biscuits that were on special, the new brand of cereal that seemed like better value, or the health claims on the new fruit juice you thought you’d try. By the time your docket purrs out of the till, chances are you’ve not only spent more than you intended to, but you may also have unwittingly ended up with a less healthy food basket. Despite claims of prices going down, down, your local supermarket employs a wealth of cunning strategies to make you swap your original shopping list for the products they want you to buy. Unfortunately, it’s often the less nutritious, processed products (where the biggest profit lies) that are designed to catch your eye. That’s where having a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes can help you stick to your healthy eating plan – and your shopping list.
It’s important to realise a huge amount of planning goes into the positioning of each product on the shelves. The aim is to maximise sales. Top-selling products are usually placed at eye-level because research shows we’re far more likely to choose products that are clearly visible, than those we have to reach up or crouch down for.
In one study, for example, US researchers tested the impact of an eye-level position on sales by moving toothbrushes from a top shelf to an eye-level shelf in 30 test supermarkets. Sales increased by 8 per cent! Meanwhile, in another report from Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers rearranged the chilled cabinets in the hospital cafeteria so that water, diet drinks, low-fat dairy products and healthy sandwiches were placed at eye level and unhealthy foods and drinks positioned below. Overall, sales of unhealthy products dropped by almost 5 per cent. However, the biggest difference was in beverages. Sales of unhealthy drinks dropped by more than 11%, while sales of healthier ones increased by 4%.
It’s not just the position of products that counts, though. Manufacturers also want the maximum amount of shelf space (or ‘facings’) for their products and, again, it’s the best-sellers that usually get the privilege. The theory is the more of the product there is on display, the better the chance it has of being seen, and therefore chosen. However, eye-level position is still key. The researchers who carried out the toothbrush experiment also found that two facings at eye level still did more for a product than five facings did on the bottom shelf.
Remember that best-sellers aren’t always the healthiest options – think sugary cereals, biscuits and chips – yet they’re given plenty of shelf space and are usually at eye level. Look up and down before you fill your trolley: the best choice for your health might be sitting on the very top or bottom shelf.
Don’t fall for the ‘deals’
Manufacturers fund price promotions in supermarkets and get such good sales increases they still make a profit. The hope is once you’ve tried a certain product, you’ll stick with it. It’s in the supermarkets’ interest to push these promotions, too, advertising the fact they have plenty of bargains on their shelves is designed to attract more shoppers into the store.
But do promotions actually influence us? Absolutely, says food psychologist Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating (Hay House). Through several experiments, his team found sales increased with virtually any type of promotion, although it’s the use of numbers that seem to entice us the most. For example, an offer of ‘3 for $6’ sold more products than the same promotion price of ‘$2 each’. Then there’s the deals to ‘Buy One Get One Free or ‘3 for the price of 1’. This type of marketing has the potential to encourage overeating and even cause excess waste. Meanwhile, research shows the more food that’s put in front of us, the more we’ll eat, rather than storing it for later and eating it at the same rate you normally would.
Before you fall for a promotion aimed at encouraging you to buy in bulk, think about whether you really want to eat more of this particular food, whether it’s a bargain for your health as well as your wallet and whether you’ll get through it or if it’s more likely to end up in the bin. Having plenty of cans of tomatoes or beans in your cupboard might encourage you to make more healthy meals, but a mountain of ‘bargain’ chocolate won’t.
Be layout aware!
Supermarkets are good at laying out food in a way that forces you to go through the processed and packaged food aisles. For example, the dairy aisle, where most people need to go to get their milk, is intentionally placed at the back so you need to walk through the whole store to get there. While the fruit and vegie display is directly inside the door, it’s a smart move that sends you positive signals that the shop is full of ‘fresh’ produce. To get through, try to stick to the outside of the store. This is where all the fresh produce and essential items live – and avoid the middle aisles.
Watch the queue
Can you resist temptation at the checkout? It may depend how long you’re standing there. After observing more than 2,800 shoppers, US researchers found purchases of sweet treats at the checkout weren’t always made immediately. Instead, the chances of a purchase increased with the time spent queuing. Having children in tow was also found to significantly increase the likelihood of making a treat purchase.
If you find yourself giving in, look for self-checkouts or the ‘junk-free’ checkouts. One study found impulse purchases dropped by 32% in women and almost 17% in men when self-checkouts were used rather than regular tills, partly because the queues were shorter and partly because the tills were free from sweets.
Cut impulse buying
About 60% to 70% of all supermarket purchases are unplanned. And it’s not surprising: with special offers, in-store announcements and even advertising on the trolley itself, supermarkets are designed to encourage us to purchase things we haven’t planned for. So, if you leave the decision-making until you’re inside the store you’ll easily be led astray. Planning ahead – and coming up with a strategy to avoid temptation, including leaving the kids at home if you can – is essential if you want to leave the supermarket with what you need, rather than what has caught your attention.
For the healthiest, budget-smart shopping, try making a meal plan for the week (including the odd treat) and using it to create a shopping list. This means when you’re faced with a choice of ‘shall I buy that tub of ice cream or not?’ all you have to do is refer to the list. If it’s not on it, you don’t buy it.
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Don’t shop when you’re hungry. Aside from being susceptible to buying more, research shows you’re also less able to engage in rational decision making.
Make a list and stick to it, so you only enter the aisles you need to.
Be aware that eye level displays are where you’ll find supermarkets’ big profit brands – so try reaching up and bending down as it can yield healthier and cheaper options.
Don’t assume the end of aisle displays are bargains. These can simply be promotions or new products. It pays to check the usual shelf to see how the price and nutrition of the product compares.
Become a label detective and familiarise yourself with the nutrition panel on packaging. To compare products, look at the column which lists the nutrition for 100g, as serving sizes vary between brands.
Use a hand basket instead of a trolley as you’ll be less tempted to weigh yourself down with impulse buys.
Shop the perimeter – that’s where the fresh food lives, such as fruit, vegies, meats and dairy. Generally, the more of your trolley that comes from the perimeter, the healthier it will be.
In-store advertising works: 60% to 70% of all supermarket purchases are unplanned!