This post is about how our social routines and our physical environments shape our grocery shopping habits and nudge us in our buying decisions. Once you see these influences at work in your life, you’ll be able to respond to them in more deliberate ways rather than just being prompted by them without realising it.
This is Strategy #5 in a series of strategies for reducing our reliance on the globalised industrial food system. If you haven’t read the previous two posts in this series please do that first, then come back to this one. The previous posts are:
- “3 Supermarket Strategies to Help You Spend Less, Tread Lighter, and Live Better”
- “Strategy #4: to Help Parents Spend Less at the Supermarket”
Who is in charge of your grocery shopping habits?
We think we’re running our lives with rational thinking, logic, and will power. But studies show that in actual fact our environment has much more influence on our behavior than we realize. (I wrote about how our environment can distract us from our goals or guide us toward them, here.)
We’ll start this post with some examples of how our physical and social environments shape our habits. Then we’ll look at how the environment inside the supermarket is designed to prompt us to buy more, and I’ll share a specific example of how a family routine was prompting me to go shopping more often than I needed to.
Finally, I’ll give you some suggestions for how you can make use of all of this and become more aware and deliberate about your shopping choices.
How our environments shape us
For a very obvious example of how our social environment can support or hinder us in making changes to our behaviour, think about a habit like smoking. If you were a smoker who wanted to stop, it would be essential to put yourself in environments where no-one else smokes. Hanging around with smokers would make it extremely difficult to break the habit and sustain the change for the long term.
Our physical environment shapes us too, literally as well as figuratively. For example if you took all the raised seating out of your living area and replaced it with a mat and cushions on the floor, you’d gradually adjust to sitting on the floor with associated changes in posture, flexibility, and mobility over time.
James Clear, author on habits and behavior change, calls this “choice architecture,” and says it’s “the number one driver of better habits.” (He should know; he wrote a New York Times best seller on the topic of how to change our behavior.)
Marketers know all about how our environments influence our behaviors, and they make full use of it. In the next section, I’ll show you how the environment inside a supermarket is specifically designed to prompt you to buy more than you had planned to when you walked in there.
How “a few things” becomes a trolley-load
Everything about the way supermarkets are laid out and the ways the shelves are packed is designed to prompt you to buy:
- the size of the shopping trolley (research shows that you buy more if your trolley looks empty).
- delicious bakery smells wafting over you as enter, to whet your appetite for all the foods you’re about to be choosing.
- fresh fruit and veg near the entrance to give an impression of healthful freshness that lingers for the rest of your visit and to give you the feeling that you’ve already selected healthy stuff, so further along it’s ok to indulge in a few extra “treats”.
- placement of specific items at eye height for you and your kids.
- the placement of items on hooks that protrude out a little from the shelves and are a different, but related, category to the other items in that aisle.
- stacks of snack foods at the ends of the aisles – high traffic areas that you can’t avoid passing by.
- and of course, at the check out, the magazines for you to help yourself to as you wait in line to pay, and the sugar snacks for you to pick up since you’re now hungry and light headed from all the stimuli you’ve just been subjected to.
If I were a supermarket manager, perhaps I’d make similar decisions. I hope I wouldn’t, but then I’d probably go broke or get sacked. I’m glad I’m not a supermarket manager.
The next section is an example of how our weekly family routine was putting me in close proximity to the supermarket which was prompting me to go shopping twice as often as I needed to, and what I did about it.
How a good book is helping me take care of my grocery shopping habits
This example showed up in my Supermarket Notebook a while ago. (I introduced the idea of keeping a Supermarket Notebook in Strategy #1.)
First, some context: we live in a rural area and we’re home educators. Our daughter does dance lessons every Tuesday afternoon during school term, which is a reason for a weekly town trip. During school holidays, there’s no dance class so there’s no regular weekly requirement to go to town.
Now, to the point of the story: a while ago, I realized that during school holidays we only go shopping about once every two to three weeks. But, during school term we seem to need to go shopping once a week. On dance class day. Now isn’t that interesting?
Being in town on dance class day, in close proximity to the supermarket, was prompting me to “just go in and get a few things.” And then before you know it, “a few things” turns into a trolley-load. Which, as we discussed in the previous section, isn’t by coincidence.
Now, I go shopping every second week, at the most, all year round. But how did I break the habit of weekly shopping during school term?
Every second week when I drive my daughter to dance class, I take a good book. I park outside dance, let my daughter out, then lean the seat back and take out my book. (Ahhhhh… I LOVE a good book. And as I said in this post, reading is a great way to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel good.)
So there I stay, reading my book rather than marinating in marketing messages, until it’s time to drive home. I save on fuel and grocery costs and I get to relax for an hour and a half that I would otherwise have spent running around shopping.
Necessity is the mother of invention
This strategy helps me re-affirm to myself and my family that we don’t need the grocery store every week. Our efforts at growing some of our own food, making our own bathroom and cleaning products, and generally being as frugal as we can, are all paying off.
But what if it doesn’t work? What if you get near the end of the “non-shopping week” and realise you forgot to stock up enough on this or that, and now it isn’t going to last until the next shopping trip?
Necessity is the mother of invention. By putting yourself in this predicament you have actually set up your environment–specifically that empty spot on the bathroom or pantry shelf or in the fridge–to prompt you to be more resourceful than you otherwise would have to be.
The consumer economy wants you to be reliant on shopping frequently. But you don’t have to be. You can train yourself, gradually, to be less and less reliant on the quick and easy fixes that are dangled in front of us like peanuts for monkeys.
Understanding why supermarkets are set up the way they are enables us to avoid falling for the trickery quite so easily. And seeing how our behaviours are linked together in our routines enables us to tweak our routines to support the kinds of behaviour change we want in our lives.
Here are some suggestions for ways to use your Supermarket Notebook (from the first post in this series) to figure out how you’re currently being influenced and decide what you want to change about that.
- Think about what prompts you to go grocery shopping as often as you do. Are there things in your physical environment, your family routines or your social routines that make it easy or logical for you to go on certain days? Do you really need to go that often? Could you consolidate your trips so that you go less often, shop more efficiently, and build your “resourcefulness muscles” between grocery shopping trips?
- Think about how your buying decisions are being influenced once you get into the supermarket. Go through the list above, of ways that the supermarket environment is set up to influence your choices. Which ones have you been falling for? Remember, they’re subtle. They’re designed to work without you being aware of them. What can you do to make yourself impervious to them? (There are tips in Strategy #3 and Strategy #4 that might help.)
- Scribble the answers to all these questions on the Notes Pages in your Supermarket Notebook. You haven’t tried to change anything yet. Just begin by getting it all out on those pages so you can see what’s really going on. Gradually (give it time) you’ll see ways you might be able to make changes. Write those ideas down as they come to you.
- Try one idea at a time (remember Strategy #2, take it in small steps) and write down the outcomes so you’ll have a record of what you’ve tried, what helped you spend less or shop smarter, what didn’t, and what you learned in the process.
An important tip is that useful, actionable answers may not come right away to the questions you ask in your notebook. Be patient. Ask again next week, and the week after, until gradually the answers and insights start to flow. Give yourself time to find ways to make positive changes to your routines and habits that will really stick.
References and resources
Here are two short videos, (each a little over 2 minutes) and a short read (less than 2 minutes) about how supermarkets are designed, from a consumer advocacy website called FoolProofMe.org, who suggest that we “make healthy skepticism a habit” in this commercialised world.
The Low-down on Super-Marketing – short post