The problem with enticements at the supermarket checkout

The problem with enticements at the supermarket checkout.


In the retail industry, the term ‘pester-power items’ is used to refer to products placed in the checkout zone of supermarkets, and for good reason. Children waiting at the checkout are often so strongly attracted to the sweets placed there that they pester their unnerved parents until the parents put the desired product in the shopping trolley for the sake of peace. However, it is not only children who find this sales strategy irresistible: many adults also have difficulty ignoring items on display in the checkout zone. The problem is that the majority of the products on offer are extremely unhealthy – not least because they are very high in sugar and calories in many cases.

On the other hand, the business with ‘impulse buys’, as the items on offer near the checkout are called, is extremely lucrative for retailers. According to studies, sales in the checkout zone alone are said to account for between six and seven per cent of total sales even though on average the checkout zone accounts for little more than one per cent of the total shop space. This shows just how important this area is economically for the retail trade. Accordingly, there was immediately strong resistance when the German federal government recently urged that sweets and less-healthy foods be removed from checkout zones in shops. For example, Die Lebensmittelwirtschaft e.V., a now-defunct association that represented the German food industry, objected to the government’s plans, thereby distracting from more serious problems such as lack of exercise and lack of nutritional knowledge in the kitchen. Stephan Becker-Sonnenschein, the then managing director of the association, argued that the goal of a balanced diet could not be achieved even if such items were not on offer at checkouts. The Association of the German Confectionery Industry (BDSI) also shot down the initiative with the argument that nobody becomes slimmer if retailers banish sales of confectionery in the checkout zone.

However, a recent study from the UK indirectly contradicts this statement: researchers from Cambridge University found that the number of small packages of sugary confectionery, chocolate and potato crisps bought and taken home decreases significantly when these products disappear from the checkout zone. And the consumption of such products is reflected in superfluous pounds.

For their study, the scientists evaluated data from more than 30,000 British households that between 2013 and 2017 recorded everything they took home from the supermarket. It also included data from 7,500 people who recorded the purchases of food that they made and then ate without taking it home.

Checkout food policies

In addition, the researchers analysed sales data from nine UK supermarket chains with regard to sales of items from such impulse buying. Six of the chains had introduced a checkout food policy between 2013 and 2017 to reduce the sale of less-healthy items near the checkout. A peer group comprising three supermarket chains had adopted a policy of ‘business as usual’ in this respect.

The bottom line: the Cambridge University scientists found that sales of small packages containing less-healthy sugary confectionery, chocolate or potato crisps fell by around 17 per cent as soon as the checkout food policy had been implemented. A year later, the drop was still 16 per cent. Impulse purchases that were eaten ‘on the go’ before people arrived home decreased by as much as 76 per cent during the reporting period.

Even though the authors of the study noted that it cannot be deduced from their research that the changes in customers' shopping habits really are due to the checkout food policies, they said they could see evidence of how such requirements could help people eat better.

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