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The psychology of the supermarket: Influencing buying behavior - part1



Customer experience insight Supermarkets are part of our everyday lives and we generally take them for granted.

 Each time we take a trip to our local store the brightest retailer and manufacturer brains are actively managing every aspect of the store in order to influence our buying behavior subconsciously.

When you ask people how much of a supermarket (how many aisles) they visit when they go shopping, a large proportion will tell you that they visit nearly all of it. In fact this is far from the truth. We know this from studies of shopper behavior in supermarkets which use CCTV video footage to monitor shopper traffic.

In fact when we enter a store we generally navigate a route around its perimeter, be that clockwise or anticlockwise depending on the country in which we live, and dip in and out of the central aisles according to our needs. This perimeter or “race track” is designed to have a wider walkway both to accommodate a larger amount of footfall but also to encourage our behavior since we naturally tend to migrate towards open spaces and avoid confinement. Retailers know this and make sure they position their key products, the things they know most people will buy, such as meat, produce and bread on the race track so that as many people as possible are exposed, and end up buying from these product categories. For the manufacturers of branded products such as baked beans or soft drinks the race track is also a desirable place for their products to be positioned in order to gain maximum exposure to shoppers. As such this space is highly sought after and brand owners must propose attractive discounts in order to secure this space for even a short time window.

The central aisles of the store, because they are less widely and frequently visited by shoppers actually account for proportionately less of the sales of a typical supermarket than you might think. Most of the products in the store, those in the central aisles, actually do not sell in high volume and consequently the aisles in which they reside are said to have a lower “sales density”. This lower volume majority of products are what is known as the “long tail” of the product offering. However it is not to say that the long tail is inconsequential. Whilst relatively few units of an individual product in the long tail may be sold, these products do serve the purpose of catering to every eventuality and in doing so also give us as shoppers a sense of variety which drives us to choose that store over another in the first place.

Increased choice however also presents a paradox. Too much choice can actually overwhelm us and cause us not to buy anything at all. This is another advantage of presenting products in isolation at the end of an aisle as opposed to down the aisle where the full selection of alternatives is available.

A case study conducted by the American consumer psychologist Sheena Iyengar clearly demonstrates this paradox of choice. In this experiment the researchers manipulated the number of varieties of jam available to shoppers. When six varieties were made available only 40% of shoppers stopped to browse compared to 60% when 24 varieties were on offer.

So, increased choice is attractive. However, when we come to look at the number of shoppers who went on to buy some jam, in the first scenario 45% of those stopping to browse made a selection vs only 2% when the full 24 varieties were available.

The experiment also raises an important issue about supermarket shopping which are the stages of the shopping process. When we are in a supermarket there is an assumption that we are always in the process of buying things. However this is not always the case. Actually as much as 80% of the time we spend in a supermarket is not associated with us engaging with and buying products. As is clearly evident in in-store eye tracking exercises, most of our time is spent moving about the store from one shopping event to the next. When we’re doing this we tend to switch off, rather like driving a car, and we go with the flow, following a route of least resistance, which is why we tend to follow the wide perimeter race track.


Compiled in Editorial Board of Retailiran 

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