Chances are you’ve been a victim of impulse marketing and don’t know it—that’s the idea. Supermarket layouts are designed using a body of consumer psychology research to influence impulse buying of high profit items. A textbook example of impulse marketing is the rack of junk food at the checkout counter, a practice that has been labeled a risk factor for obesity and chronic disease.
Devious product placement
Millions of dollars are spent paying consultants who show retailers how to influence consumer buying decisions against their own best interests. Because of how the brain is wired to make decisions, Dr. Deborah Cohen and Dr. Susan Babey have written an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine saying that such product placement is contributing to the obesity epidemic.
In “Candy at the Cash Register – A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease,” the physicians explain that marketers with knowledge about how consumer brains process buying decisions sucker people into making unhealthy choices.
For example, marketers test promotional displays with the goal to make them hard to resist. Sophisticated eye-tracking systems have been developed that exploit a consumer’s natural inability to control what they look at. Because buying decisions are often made subconsciously in less than a second, what captures their gaze longest is most likely to be purchased.
The obesity risk factor
According to the authors, impulse marketing is at its most pernicious with junk food, because shoppers make decisions to buy foods high in fat and sugar more quickly the thought that goes into buying fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods. Their editorial contends that impulse marketing should be regarded as a risk factor for diet-related chronic illnesses because the practice influences decisions people can’t consciously control.
The methods are tried and true. ABC News cites a 2008 study by the retail analyst firm IHL finding that in a year, impulse marketing leads to more than 14,300 calories for the average American woman and 28, 350 for the average man. At that rate, a woman theoretically could lose 4.1 lbs a year by resisting impulse marketing for junk food at the checkout checkout counter.
How impulse marketing works
Stores are designed so that by the time a shopper reaches the checkout counter, they have been set up to be the most vulnerable to impulse marketing. According to Jacqueline Curtis at Money Crashers, here’s how it works.
Welcome to the decompression zone
The store entrance is the “decompression zone.” It’s designed to lure you into the web by putting some of the store’s best deals on display.
Past the decompression zone, the bakery and deli lie in wait. The smells are wonderful, making it more likely you will grab that rotisserie chicken and dozen doughnuts that weren’t on your shopping list.
You may also find the produce section is often situated nearby. That’s because you’re more likely to splurge on unhealthy, expensive convenience food if you’ve already checked off your fruit and vegetables.
Gauntlet of processed foods
The center of the store stocks convenience foods in cans, boxes, and cartons you need to pass on your way to staples, like milk and eggs. Healthy foods such as dried fruits and nuts are interspersed with pricier junk foods. A gauntlet of processed meats protects the fresh meat and fish.
At the checkout line, your decision-making capacity has been worn down to the point where candy, cookies, chips, processed meat sticks and sugary sodas are hardest for you to resist. That’s where impulse marketing hits you the hardest.