Fruit and Vegetables Should Be the First Thing You See at a Supermarket

CC BY 2.0. Dean Hochman

When fresh produce is displayed prominently at the front entrance, sales go up by 15 percent.

What's the first thing you see when you walk into the supermarket? For me, it's usually cases of bottled water and bags of potato chips in the entrance, followed by houseplants. Past those is the produce area, where fruit and vegetables are laid out for sale.

Everyone's experience will be different, but imagine if fruit and vegetables were the very first thing you saw upon entering the store. Would it make you more likely to scoop them up? Researchers say yes, the strategic positioning of certain foods increases people's likelihood to buy them. This is known as 'choice architecture' or, as it's sometimes called, 'nudging'.

A five-year experiment in an English university town proved this point. Between January 2012 and July 2017, researchers from the University of Warwick observed and then rearranged the placement of fruits and vegetables in the sole grocery store on campus. The first 90 weeks were the baseline period, followed by two experiments of 40 weeks each.

In the first intervention, fruits and vegetables were brought to the front of the store, close to the entrance. Subsequent sales increased by 15 percent. In the second intervention, fruits and vegetables were kept at the front but placed in glass-fronted refrigerators. They were still accessible, but slightly less so than in the earlier experiment. This increased sales by only 5 percent over baseline.

Choice architecture is a valuable concept to understand when striving to improve the nutritional content of diets, particularly those of young adults, who are not known for their healthy eating. The study authors write that using choice architecture to 'nudge' college students in the right direction is particularly effective because it does not act by limiting choice.

"It respects the autonomy of young adults and their rights and capacity to make their own decisions in respect of health related behaviours... There is also some evidence derived from qualitative research, that university students fail to engage with healthy behaviours because of perceptions of health problems as distant or their health as invincible."

These findings are applicable to personal lives, even if we're no longer college students. The easier it is to eat fresh produce, the more likely it is to get eaten. I do this by washing and drying salad greens and prepping leafy greens for cooking as soon as I bring them home from my weekly CSA pickup; it makes me more inclined to sauté a pan of Swiss chard to go with eggs in the morning or whip up a salad for lunch. Similarly, I keep fruit in a bowl on the counter and choose ones that require minimal peeling and cutting; for example, apples, pears, and grapes are more likely to get eaten by my kids than oranges, pineapple, and mangos.

The University of Warwick's experiment was so successful that the food program directors said they'd be keeping fresh produce front and center in their campus grocery store. Now, if only other supermarkets would do the same...

Read the full study here