Expert Column: Hidden Influences That Shape Grocery Shopping


On just 20 watts, the brain not only runs our body but also enables us to think, dream, plan, make decisions and solve problems.

What neuroscientist Reed Montague termed “this freakish efficiency” is achieved, in part, by automating everyday activities. These typically include shopping for weekly groceries. This is usually a task so familiar and well-practiced that it can be effectively undertaken with little need for conscious awareness.

Here's how this happens and why it matters to retailers.

'Cognitive Flow'

Shopping on "autopilot" allows consumers to enter a relaxed mental state known as "cognitive flow." The longer they are able to maintain this flow, the more agreeable they find the experience of shopping. This is why anything that disrupts their "flow" so annoys them.

Take one frequent cause of disruption: the rearrangement of displays. Let's imagine a shopper arriving on autopilot at the shelves where she’s always found milk. To her frustration, this has been moved to another part of the store. By interrupting her flow, the retailer compels her to engage her conscious mind. Research conducted by my laboratory has found that being obliged to stop and think causes some shoppers, especially those pressed for time, to head straight for the nearest exit.

Here are three frequently encountered flow disrupters:

  • Overly busy aisles: Retail anthropologist Paco Underhill has identified what he calls the "brush butt" factor: If a woman stooping to pick an item from a low shelf in a crowded aisle is accidently brushed by a passerby she almost always moves away immediately and may even leave the store. While it's obviously hard for retailers to do much about busy aisles, they can avoid other types of obstructions, such as stacks of produce waiting to be placed on the shelves.
  • Hard-to-read signage: Product information that's tricky to decipher, perhaps because the font is too small or poorly chosen, will always disrupt flow.
  • Delays at the point of purchase: Both in store and online, more customers abandon their shopping for this reason than probably any other.

Ensuring that customers maintain their flow not only makes the shopping more pleasurable, it also provides important selling opportunities.

Hidden Persuaders

Every waking second around 11 million bits of information arrive in the brain via our senses. We can consciously attend to only 16 of them.

Far from playing no part in shaping purchasing decisions, however, this unconsciously processed information exerts a powerful influence as long as the customer remains in a state of flow. Here are four powerful hidden persuaders:

Background music has been shown to affect buying choices even when customers are unaware of what's played. In one study, wine buyers exposed to classical music purchased higher-priced vintages than those exposed to pop music. Yet when asked what music had been played, neither group was able to say.

Color also exerts an unconscious influence. When Joseph Bellizzi of Arizona State University and Robert Hite from Kansas State University compared sales in two stores, one predominantly red and the other blue, they found that in the blue environment, customers bought more produce, made buying decisions more rapidly and browsed longer. Yet hardly any of them commented on the color scheme.

Even a few molecules of aroma can trigger the brain to buy. At a Net Cost grocery store in New York, a variety of aromas has been used to stimulate sales. These include chocolate in the sweet snack aisle, grapefruit in the produce aisle and rosemary focaccia in the bread aisle. Since the system was installed, sales are reported to have risen by 7 percent.

Just as flow can be disrupted by hard-to-read fonts, attractive and easy-to-understand fonts, by contrast, can encourage customers to like a product better. In one study we asked two groups of shoppers to taste one of two bowls of tomato soup. Both were described on a menu using the same words. The only difference was the font used. One was printed in dull-looking Courier and the other in flowing Lucida Calligraphy. The soup described in the elegant font was not only much preferred, but also persuaded more shoppers to buy it. Both soups were, in fact, from the same can!

All of this serves to demonstrate how, by working with the flow, grocery retailers can boost sales, build loyalty and ensure customer satisfaction.


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