Who's really in charge at the supermarket?

grocery cart with food
CC BY 2.0 eddie welker

Shoppers like to think they're in control of their own food decisions, but there's actually a complex web of manipulations between supermarkets and food processors going on behind the scenes.

Who’s really in charge at the supermarket? Most of us assume that we’re in control of our own shopping decisions. After all, we are the ones with a grocery list in one hand and a wallet in the other. It should be that way. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) doesn’t believe it’s so. Most shoppers, even the most conscientious and frugal, can fall victim to the manipulations of a food industry that pairs up with supermarkets to influence our purchasing decisions.

According to a video released by the CSPI called “Anatomy of a Supermarket Purchase,” much of this mental manipulation goes on without us even noticing it, which is, of course, why it’s so very effective. There are three concepts outlined in the video that explain what’s really going on when we buy food at the supermarket.

1) Unconscious Mind

Our unconscious minds rely on habit and what’s deemed comfortable and familiar to us. Supermarkets use tools such as windowless buildings, forgettable music, large carts, scrumptious bakery smells, and constantly reorganized aisles to make shoppers stay longer and, by extension, spend more.

Advertisements are a big part of that. The average American sees 4,500 messages daily, which is approximately one ad for every 14 seconds that you’re awake. That can’t help but have an influence on what you choose to buy, particularly when you have to decide between several brands. We absorb what we see and hear repeatedly.

Product location is hugely lucrative for food companies. The strategic placement of certain products on end, center, or middle shelves is not coincidental; it’s the result of contracts between supermarkets and food processors.

“The locations of products are so important that supermarkets make more money from charging food processors for shelf location than they do from customer purchases.”

2) Defaults

Defaults are what you get at the supermarket, unless you actively choose something else. This can be packaging size, product formulations, or standard food combinations.

CSPI gives the example of pickles being the side of choice for sandwiches in the 1950s, until Frito-Lay came along and, over time, changed it to potato chips, which is now the widely accepted standard.

Product formulations are what the processors put into their foods to make them more appealing, even addictive. The quantity of salt, sugar, and fat has increased significantly over the past decades, making people crave them more and seek out products that meet those taste requirements.

3) Willpower Reserves

All of us have a willpower reserve – the strength to resist temptation – that we exercise on a regular basis. But when we’re tired, stressed, distracted, hungry, or have made lots of decisions already, it’s much harder to exercise that same self-control that may come easily early in the morning.

Supermarkets and food processors count on the fact that many of us will go shopping at the end of a long day, perhaps on the way home from work, or with tired, hungry kids in tow. That’s when it’s hardest to rely on willpower reserves.

There are 40,000 products in the average supermarket, and it takes willpower on the best of days to resist the easiest-to-reach, the cheapest, and the tastiest-looking processed products. Food companies count on our weakness and profit from it.

The sad thing is that food marketers and supermarkets could use their marketing genius to support health, rather than pushing products that are unhealthy, but there’s relatively little money to be made selling fresh vegetables compared to processed veggie products.

CSPI wants supermarkets to change their approach, using fresh smells, images of fruit, arrows pointing the produce section, checkouts free from junk, smaller packages, and no unhealthy marketing for kids. As wonderful as this sounds, it’s unlikely to materialize because there’s little profit to be made.

The best thing is for shoppers to be aware of what’s going on. Choose your grocery shopping time carefully, if possible, or go armed with a list. You can also join the campaign for healthier supermarkets at cspinet.org/actnow.

Who's really in charge at the supermarket?
Shoppers like to think they're in control of their own food decisions, but there's actually a complex web of manipulations between supermarkets and food processors going on behind the scenes.

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