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Tricks of the supermarket trade: How not to enhance a customer’s experience

My local supermarket changed where it put everything, and I found myself lost in the aisles. Photo/Getty.

How not to enhance a customer’s experience.

We’re only beginning to comprehend how the internet manipulates our behaviour, but what about supermarkets? I’ve been thinking about this recently, after my local supermarket changed where it put everything, and I found myself lost in the aisles trying to find where the eggs had got to and where the loo paper was – which, it turned out, was where the bread used to be.

At the same time, they’d changed the location of the signage, so you could no longer stand at one end of the aisles and see in which one you’d find the eggs, etc. The signs within the aisles didn’t make much sense either, with those for eggs on the right side while the eggs were on the left side and at the other end of the aisle, so you’d walk towards the sign for the eggs but have to double-back to the other end, to where they actually were.

Not so long ago I’d have taken this in my stride, even told myself that getting lost in the supermarket was a form of exercise. Then I developed a mobility issue, and I couldn’t stride anywhere. I started to get angry, mostly on behalf of myself but also those with more serious disabilities.

Had they done this on purpose, to confuse us, to make us linger longer? Probably, although the supermarket would say they were making things more convenient, to “enhance the customer experience”. Well, that’s what the staff said when I asked them why they’d mucked with the perfectly functional store layout. They also said a lot of customers weren’t happy, and the look on their faces suggested they didn’t believe what they were saying, either. I can’t help but suspect those higher up the food-chain decided their customers had become too familiar with the layout of their supermarket and weren’t buying enough of what they didn’t need, so decided to shake things up.

Read more: Kiwis love a bargain, but are we getting ripped off?Deepfake: How disinformation fools our brains and damages democracy

The way supermarkets use our psychologies, often against our best intentions, is well-known. As University of Otago professor of public health and marketing Janet Hoek told Consumer magazine, they use what could be called “choice architecture” and none of it is accidental: “All of it is there to manipulate your behaviour.”

Your shopping journey typically starts with the flowers at the entrance, placed there to cheer us up, possibly put us in the mood for buying. That’s followed by fresh produce, the brightly coloured bananas and tomatoes, so we think we’re entering a good and healthy place. Produce is likely to be followed by the smells of freshly baked bread and rotisserie chicken, presumably to whet our appetite, so we’re in the mood to buy more food. 

The things you actually came for – the milk, loo paper, standard sliced bread – will usually be found on the far side of the supermarket, obliging you to walk the length of the store, a journey in which you’ll likely be distracted by lots of things in-between that you hadn’t planned to buy but couldn’t help yourself.

Have you ever noticed how, when you’re looking for cheaper options, you have to bend down? Illustration/Getty.
There are myriad tricks of the supermarket trade. You might find yourself buying three for the price of two when you only wanted one. You might find yourself overwhelmed by choice, dithering over the toothpastes, even the feminine hygiene products, in a state of cognitive overload and unfit for good decision-making. And have you ever noticed how, when you’re looking for cheaper options, you have to bend down? Supermarkets tend to put the more expensive products at eye level and cheaper products on the lower shelves. Have you also noticed that, if you actually want to compare per unit prices, you need a magnifying glass?

After all that, the machine in the self-service checkout area has the gall to announce that you have an “unexpected item in the bagging area”? What did it expect?

Of course, before you get to the self-service unit, you’ll need to get past the chocolate bars, displayed at the checkout as if we were rats being rewarded with a treat at the end of the maze. I get this. We know chocolate bars are put where we’re likely to have to wait in a queue to pay for our groceries, where the kids are going to see them and plead for us to get some. This makes commercial sense, but my supermarket put two large chocolate-bar displays bang in the centre of the entrance to the self-service checkout area, which made it inaccessible for anyone with a trolley. People with a minor or major mobility issue might need a trolley for ergonomic support, even if they have only a few items and could, in normal circumstances, have used a basket.

So I complained to the manager, and he said that the chocolate-bar displays helped divide the customers into two lines. I said his customers knew left from right and he just wanted to sell more chocolate bars. He said, okay, there were two reasons: to divide the customers into two lines and to sell more chocolate bars. I said it was the dumbest product placement ever, and this was an accessibility issue, and I actually stamped my stick. So he agreed to consult his staff, who must have agreed with me, because two days later they’d removed the chocolate-bar displays. This was a small but gratifying achievement. Should I now take them on about the signage?

I don’t actually blame the supermarkets for using our psychologies against us and for their own economic benefit; we’re fair game, an impressionable species. Magicians, hypnotists, advertisers, politicians and psychologists know this. Magicians can use clever shuffling techniques to make us choose a certain card from a deck while sustaining the illusion that we’re agents of our own free will. Hypnotists can persuade people to eat an onion as if it were an apple. The advertising industry can persuade people that, say, the red car will get the girl. And then there’s Donald Trump, and Twitter.

To be fair, in this digital age the way supermarkets influence and manipulate us is the least of our worries. We’re only beginning to comprehend how the internet is hijacking our prefrontal cortexes, getting our attention and gathering information about our behaviour in order to influence it, often in the most insidious ways

In this context, the psychological techniques used by supermarkets are reasonably transparent, but the fact we fall for them reminds us how vulnerable we are. If we haven’t yet figured out how to resist the influences of the internet, we could start by practising small acts of consumer resistance at the supermarket: write a list, remember to take it, stick with it – and get out of there. 

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

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