What Your Supermarket Knows About You

As the recession lurches on, retailers have adjusted their marketing tactics to appeal to your hoarding instinct

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Chuck Keeler / Getty Images

The global financial crisis of 2008 hit consumers hard. Two years later, and they’re still reeling. Spending is down across the board, and even the more affluent are watching their pennies. In this fearful climate, retailers are applying ever more scientific and psychological tactics to lure them back. This was made clear to me on a memorable day in 2010 when I visited the laboratory outside of Chicago of one of the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturers.

After driving for nearly two hours, I reached my destination: a huge, imposing warehouse, with no outward signage, and a vast parking lot full of cars. A friendly receptionist checked my identity, had me sign all sorts of paperwork, and directed me through a door labeled Control Room. It was massive, and resembled images I’ve seen of NASA’s operations area — row upon row of people staring intently at hundreds of screens, only they were monitoring shoppers pushing carts around the aisles of a supermarket that had been designed to test their responses to different marketing strategies. “Take a careful look at this lady,” said one of the monitors, pointing to a middle-aged woman on the screen. “She’s about to enter our latest speed-bump area. It’s designed to have her spend 45 seconds longer in this section, which can increase her average spend by as much as 73%. I call it the zone of seduction.”

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This particular section of the market was different from the usual aisle. For a start, it had different floor tiles — a type of parquetry imparting a sense of quality. And instead of the cart gliding imperceptibly across nondescript linoleum, it made a clickety-clack sound, causing the shopper to instinctively slow down. The shopper’s speed was displayed at the top of the screen, and as soon as she entered the zone, her pace noticeably slowed. She began looking at a tall tower of Campbell’s soup, and then plucked a can off the top. Bingo! The sign in front of the display read: “1.95. Maximum three cans per customer.” Before the shopper slowly sauntered off, she had carefully selected three cans for her cart.

Sophisticated as we may be, there’s no getting away from our more primitive survival technique of hoarding food to see us through lean times. So when we come across a deal that appeals to this ancient instinct, dopamine is released in our brain, giving us an instant rush of pleasure. My guide explained the exercise: “Yesterday we ran exactly the same offer, with two distinct differences. There was a dollar sign in front of the price, and no ‘Maximum 3 cans per customer’ line. We also gave the shoppers smaller-sized carts and changed the floor tiles.” These seemingly small changes translated into big differences. On the first day of the experiment, only 1 in 103 purchased Campbell’s soup. Today, however, it seemed that 1 in every 14 succumbed — a sevenfold increase.

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Over several months of experimenting with signage, the team noticed that using a dollar sign in front of the price decreases our likelihood of making the purchase. The dollar sign is a symbol of cost, rather than gain. Removing the sign helps the consumer sidestep the harsh reality of outstanding bills and longer-term financial concerns. No doubt the larger cart and the changed floor tiles also played their part, but what was most surprising was our need to hoard. The dictum allowing only three cans per customer that sealed the deal.

The next time you go grocery shopping, take a look at the signs, the type of floor, and even the carts. Everything has been designed with an eye towards getting you to grab those three cans of something that was not on your list. The more attention you pay to the details, the more aware you’ll become of how you’re being manipulated. One thing is for certain; whoever made those three cans will be watching you just as closely.

MORE: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Groceries at Drugstores

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