Like Taking Candy From A Baby

22 Feb

Have you ever found yourself unexpectedly buying candy – just because you saw it at the checkout counter? You know the drill. The grocery store line is taking a while, so you start to eye the tabloid covers. Once you get sick of reading about the Kardashians your gaze shifts to the rows of candy and gum. And suddenly there are chocolate bars on the conveyor belt, mixed in with your “real” shopping list.

Checkout impulse buys have long been a staple merchandising strategy. So it stirred up quite the commotion when massive UK retailer Tesco announced it would no longer sell candy in any of its checkout lines. Tesco enacted this policy in most stores years ago, but now they’re extending it to every store they run. Tesco’s reps attributed their decision to a customer survey showing that 65% of its shoppers wanted the candy removed. That statistic doesn’t surprise me at all. When we can’t rely on ourselves to act in a “responsible” way we tend to favor mechanisms that “protect” us from undesirable behaviors. Removing the trigger is easier than learning to resist the trigger. It’s the same reason I don’t keep Nutella at home. I know I won’t be able to resist eating it from the jar with a spoon… so I don’t buy it at all.

Tesco says their decision is in customers’ best interests, and they’re right. But the reason it’s so popular to put candy at the checkout is because it increases customers’ “average basket ring.” Which begs the question: what does Tesco hope to gain? When basket ring goes down, what goes up?

Well, for one, they’ll get shoppers’ goodwill. We all want to make healthier choices, after all. They’ll get parents’ goodwill, because shopping is less of a hassle if kids aren’t begging for candy while you’re trying to pay. And they get a reputation for caring about their customers, too.

Personally I think the more interesting question is whether Tesco should be doing this at all. There are many studies showing that shopper behavior is profoundly affected by merchandising. We’re more likely to buy the brands at eye level, more likely to buy more if we’re using a basket, more likely to buy more if we have to walk all the way to the back of the store to find the milk. But when stores start use merchandising to affect our choices in a constructive way it gets more interesting. Do stores have a responsibility to help us make good choices? It is even responsible for them to try to do so?

I recently read a book called Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Nudge discusses subtle ways that changes in policies and process influence us to make better, healthier choices. But when is it right for organizations to do this? And when is it beyond the scope of what an organization should do? Do we really want companies and governments explicitly influencing how we live? Do you want your grocery store helping you make your eating decisions?

I highly recommend reading Nudge if you want to ponder other ways your choices aren’t solely yours. For a nice preview, check out this article from the WSJ.

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