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The supermarket solution


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    Reporter Gregory Warner (left) and Marketplace intern/photographer Michael Bernstein (pictured behind the camera lens) visit Fresh Grocer in Northern Philadelphia with graduate student Erica Davis and professor Karen Glanz (right).

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    That tower of Pepsi you pass five times on your trip around the store? Manufacturers pay big money for that well-traveled real estate. Glanz would like to see more diet soda and water in those spots. (Fresh Grocer)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    Stores often cross-market food combinations to get us to buy more. Like chips and dip. Glanz says that approach could be used to steer people toward healthy combinations they haven't tried. Like chips and, um, carrots? (Associated Supermarket, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    The popularity of cheaper store brands has given supermarkets more leverage with manufacturers. Store brands could be a way to offer healthier ingredients to cost-conscious consumers. (Associated Supermarket)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    Nothing works better than a deal to get customers in the door. And they tend to seek out what they see advertised in windows. (Associated Supermarket)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    Where's the best place to sell boxes and boxes of tasty, sugary, deliciousness? The bottom shelf, of course, where the kids can see it. But it's not just the sugar that gets their attention. It's bright colors and unusual shapes. Granola makers, take note. (Bravo Supermarket, Bronx)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    Products at eye level sell best. Manufacturers may pay extra to get those spots. Stores could save a spot on that shelf for healthy food, and draw attention to it with signs. (Bravo Supermarket, Bronx)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    Several studies suggest that putting "low fat" or "healthy" options next to their high-calorie versions helps sell the healthy stuff. (Bravo Supermarket, Bronx)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

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    Research shows it's not enough to offer healthy choices. You have to "unsell" the junk food. That's a tall order for any supermarket that cares about profits. (Associated Supermarket)

    - Michael Bernstein / Marketplace

Kai Ryssdal: If the supermarket industry had its way, we'd all probably only be allowed shop when we're totally starving and we'd have to leave our grocery lists in the car to encourage random purchases of stuff we don't really need. Even the most aware shoppers among us aren't much of a match for marketing geniuses who've designed stores for maximum temptation and maximum sales. But what if grocery stores used what they know about us and our buying habits for good instead of evil?

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY in Philadelphia, Gregory Warner reports.


Gregory Warner: From the moment you walk into a grocery store, your path is being plotted. That tower of Pepsi's you pass five times? That's no accident. Pepsi paid good rent for that well-traveled bit of real estate at the end of the aisle. Another high-traffic zone is the dairy case. Ever noticed how many other products are clustered around it that aren't dairy?

Paul Kourtis: It's all cross-merchandise.

Paul Kourtis is store manager at the Fresh Grocer in North Philadelphia. It's a supermarket known for bringing fresh produce to low-income areas. But like any store, Fresh Grocer is also trying to sell as much food as possible. So right next to the ever popular dairy case Kourtis stationed the hot dogs. Now he's got you thinking: cheese dogs.

Kourtis: Yeah. Keep going, you run into your burgers. You got your relishes, your beans, you're thinking I gotta grill, I got kids coming -- you got your Hugs, you got more chips, and you just keep going around!

So you come in for a quart of milk, next thing you know you're buying burger buns for that barbeque you've decided to throw. Every square inch of the store is charted, and every manufacturer is angling for better turf. Into this fray walks Karen Glanz.

Karen Glanz: Hi. Karen Glanz, I'm professor of epidemiology and nursing at the University of Pennsylvania!

Which is a confusing job title because what Karen spends most of her time doing is studying supermarkets.

Glanz: Trying to learn from what commercial marketers have been doing all along, see if we can't turn that to health advantage.

Glanz has partnered with this store to help rejigger its aisles. And hopefully reprogram shoppers to choose healthier food. For example, people tend to buy what's on the middle shelf, just because it's at eye level. And research also shows that when we're overwhelmed with choices...

Glanz: I mean, there's a lot of salad dressing out here.

We're more likely to rely on "shelf-talkers." Those are those cardboard ads that pop out at you from the shelf.

Glanz: If we wanted to take all the light dressing, move it towards the middle, and call it out with some signage, then somebody might say, "You know, I might try it. I don't usually get that stuff."

Here's another example: Research shows that we're more likely to choose healthy food when it's placed right next to its less healthy cousin.

Kourtis: Just put it directly next to it. Right in their face.


Low-fat items next to high-calorie versions. (Credit: Michael Bernstein/Marketplace)

Paul Kourtis the manager has worked here for 15 years. He started pushing carts as a teenager. He told me he was surprised how well this trick worked. He's used it to sell more whole wheat pizza and more multigrain, low-sodium hoagies.

But follow Glanz's research all the way and the happy partnership between nutritionist and grocery store marketeer starts to crumble. She says lots studies show that it's not enough for stores to promote healthy choices -- they have to "unsell" the bad stuff.

Glanz: That's a very tricky proposition. Because no one wants to go against a product.

Kourtis: I mean, nobody wants product to stay on the shelf.

Because no supermarket wants to make any food hard to find. Or lose the high profit on processed food. So other health advocates are pushing for laws restricting where high-fat foods get positioned -- with particular focus on the checkout aisle.

Glanz: It's an aisle that you're kind of forced through! Unless they go through self-checkout.

Self-checkout doesn't have the gauntlet of candy bars. Some industry consultant calculated that that an average American woman could lose four pounds a year just going through self-checkout.

Glanz: Self-checkout doesn't have any of that distraction.

So about that distraction, here's one more tip: Glanz says we're more likely to buy something sweet at the end of our shopping trip if we've been good about buying healthy the rest of the time. So she says, as you leave the store, treat yourself... to an apple.

In Philadelphia, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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I think to some degree business can be evil. What about the advertisers who are promoting their food products towards children. A lot of these products I would say for the most part are going to be full of sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Advertisers are encouraging kids and making them think they need their product using cartoon characters they're familiar with. Kids are going to want it. They'll nag their parents and if they don't buy it for them, they will find a way to get their hands on it. I shop at WinCo, and these particular products are positioned low enough on the shelves for children to easily grab. 1 in 5 children in America have type 2 diabetes. And I think for a business to advertise they're unhealthy product towards children is an act of evil. Advertisers know it's not a healthy product, and I can't imagine they even care. They just want to make money. That's what it's all about in the end.

Come on, Kai!
You introduced the June 13 story on "The Supermarket Solution" by saying, "But what if grocery stores used what they know about us and our buying habits for good instead of evil?"
By what standard is it evil when any industry presents its products in an attractive, compelling fashion?
Would you prefer dark, dirty dingy stores with minimal merchandise?
I love bright, clean, attractive grocery stores with thousands of products cleverly competing for my attention.
Business isn't evil. Neither are people who use both psychology and common sense to boost the bottom line. It's called capitalism.
Patrick Lee
www.JeffersonLeadership.com

How dare these socialists tell me what to eat. I would much prefer that business owners and corporations steer my decisions at the grocery store.

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