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Can Nudge Marketing in Supermarkets Make Us Healthier?

We’ve all been there: you run to the shops quickly after work to pick up some essentials. As you walk around, you realise you’re hungry. The supermarket has obligingly left chips, chocolates and other tasty treats on display. You’re in a rush, so you grab the nearest high-sodium snack or can of soda, and maybe a microwave meal since you’ll be too hungry to cook at home.

This isn’t all on you: many supermarkets and convenience stores are set up not only to make us impulse buy, but often to make us impulse buy unhealthy food. Think of the check-out lane at most major supermarkets: they aren’t exactly loaded with healthy choices.

This is why Nudge, a pop-up supermarket in central London has been making headlines recently. The supermarket has a novel approach to their layout: it’s designed to help customers make healthy choices.

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in conjunction with Slimming World have created the first supermarket designed by dieticians. It aims to help customers make healthier purchases by making healthy food more prominent in displays, limiting the shelf space junk food occupies and providing healthy cooking demonstrations and recipes. In addition, junk food, when it is on the shelf, is not displayed at eye level and healthy alternatives are on display nearby.

Nudge is an experiment to determine whether creating this health-first environment for shoppers changes their decision-making and, ultimately, their overall health.

The term “Nudge” most likely derives from the concept of nudge marketing, made popular by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book, Nudge. The idea of nudge marketing is not to make any decisions for the customers, but to set up their environment in such a way that making a good decision for themselves is easier than making a bad one.

A Sweet Example

A great example of similar thinking to this is when Google realised that its free food policy was causing employees to gain 15 pounds on average when they began working there. Concerned about the wellbeing of their staff, they changed how they presented foods. They made healthy foods easier to find and relocated unhealthy foods to the back of the cafeteria. They also reduced the portion sizes of the meals available. Note that none of these changes took choice away from their employees – the unhealthy food was still available, it was just slightly harder to get to than the healthy food was. And this was effective. As an example, moving the M&M’s from free-flowing upside-down dispensers to opaque jars resulted in Googlers in the New York office consuming 3.1million fewer calories from M&M’s.

What Principles Are at Play here?

Nudge marketing plays off the ways that we tend to make decisions. Again, it’s not restricting freedom of choice or “tricking” anyone, it’s just nudging our decision-making in a specific direction.

Heuristics are the shortcuts our brain takes in processing information and, while they often serve us well by speeding up decisions, they’re not always rational. Nudge marketing hones in on some of these heuristics, including (but not limited to):

Status Quo Bias and Inertia: this is the tendency we have to avoid the unknown and complexity. Our brains don’t always like being challenged with new ideas or complexity – the simpler and more familiar, the better.

Framing: the way that something is presented to us often changes our perception of it. If you’re given a bottle of wine with a rubber duckie on the label, you’ll automatically assume it’s less expensive than a bottle of wine with a thoroughbred stallion on the label. You associate those images with different levels of affluence, and assign those characteristics to the wine they represent.

Stimulus Response Compatibility: this is an overlapping of several heuristics, but it covers how things can be designed in such a way that we immediately understand how to respond to them. For example, the colour green is commonly associated with health and we’ll assume food with green packaging is better for us without really thinking about it.

A nudge in the right direction?

But the question is: even if people are encouraged to buy more healthy food, are they getting healthier? There is no way to track what happens to the healthy food purchases or ingredients (in people’s homes specifically): are they kept in the back of the pantry or worse, left to spoil and thrown out? Are people not stopping at a drive-through on the way home anymore? The problem with a lot of nudge marketing like this is that it focuses on one very specific behaviour – shopping, when the problem that may need solving (unhealthy eating, for example) consists of changing several behaviours.

The pop-up supermarket does attempt to mitigate this by offering cooking demonstrations and recipe cards, so that people actually know what to do with the healthy ingredients they buy, but it’s by no means a guarantee. Only time will tell.

We at Neural Sense have used our technology to track shopper journeys for several major retailers. In doing this, we have gained insights into branding, store layout, product placement and signage, among other things. For this reason, we are interested to see both whether the principles applied in this market are effective and, if so, whether they translate to wider behavioural change.

A Local Context

Similar thinking is currently being applied in South Africa, where plans are underway to introduce a food labelling system that makes it easy for the average consumer to identify whether a food is healthy or not. This gives the consumer further information about the food, and empowers them to make a better choice. It also incentivises manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar, sodium and saturated fats in their products.

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