How Grocers Could Nudge Shoppers into Buying Healthier Foods

Subtle cues can drastically change buying habits for the better.

Researchers are learning methods of subliminal influence, or gentle persuasion if you like that term better, to get shoppers to buy more produce. These little tricks were tried under research conditions, revealing some surprising and some not-so-surprising quirks of human behavior when shopping.

The Research

Spurred by disparities in metabolic heath among Mexican Americans, Researchers at New Mexico State University (NSMU) wanted to find ways to encourage shoppers to choose more fruits and vegetables at the grocery store where they make 80 percent of their food buying choices. Assistant Marketing Professor at NMSU’s College of Business Collin Payne is the lead investigator in the ongoing study. So far, the results are interesting.

In grocery stores across the country – in El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces, N.M., and throughout Virginia shoppers are changing their behaviors based on subtle clues planted by Payne and his coconspirators. Here’s a sampling of the findings so far:


Placing mirrors at the store entrance is one trick Payne tried that didn’t work as well as he hoped. It seemed to just get ignored or used as a quick primping tool for those entering. But when mirrors were placed in carts, the reaction was stronger. When shoppers could see their waist lines reflected back at them, they bought more produce. He’s still working on this test and hopes to have some more conclusive evidence soon.

Walk this Way Arrows

Another test was much more conclusive. Payne created powerful cues in the form of arrows on the floor, pointing to the produce section. One grocer was astounded by the results. Produce Director for Lowe’s and Pay and Save grocery chains in El Paso noted, “In retail, the customer tends to go to the right. But I watched when the arrows were down, pointing left and that’s where people went: left, 9 out of 10.”

The Divided-Cart

Tampering with cart sin other ways created huge results. By dividing carts in half with a bright strip of duct tape and instructing shoppers to put produce in one half of the cart, produce sales soared. The average spend per customer increased from $3.99 to $8.85 per shopping trip!

What’s Selling

Cart design had a strong impact in other ways as well. By placing placards in cart baskets, telling shoppers stats on the number of fruits and vegetables the average shopper bought and the biggest selling produce items, sales rose 10 percent.

Nudging Grocers in the Right Direction

One benefit of this research has little to do with keeping a healthy weight. It’s about profit margins for grocers. As it turns out, the produce section is one of the biggest money makers for grocery stores. Consumers in the tests didn’t spend more money per shopping trip, but made healthier purchases. So these subtle marketing techniques could become double wins for grocers and shoppers alike.

These marketing tricks are used by sellers of soda and chips all the time. But the produce section is much more segmented, with many different brands. It’s up to store owners to implement these marketing techniques, not the manufacturers. By taking clues of what works from companies like Frito Lay, M&M Mars and Coca Cola, grocers could start putting produce items at the ends of aisles, putting healthy foods at eye level and even placing some at the checkout aisle to encourage impulse buys.