Can Supermarket Design Really Impact What You Buy?

people shopping at the grocery store

Tom Werner / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The psychology of consumer behavior is studied heavily in supermarkets as well as other retail spaces.
  • Supermarkets often rely on behavior-based strategies to encourage shoppers to buy certain foods.
  • COVID-19 has forced a shift in supermarket layout and day-to-day operations due to consumer behavior.

Researching psychology’s effects on consumer behavior has been a longstanding area of study, and grocery stores are one place where those effects are particularly obvious.

Products are constantly vying for consumer attention in a slightly higher stakes environment than, say, a clothing store since the decisions you make in the grocery store impact the broader health of the individual and their family.

Supermarket designers and marketers channel these psychological principles into behavior-based strategies that aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye, and some wonder if these methods could encourage people to buy healthier food.

The Music, the Aisles, Every Little Thing

Research on how psychology impacts buying behavior has an incredibly long history. A study dating back to 1982 found that supermarket shoppers are affected by the background music that is played in stores, a finding that was explored as recently as 2019. Other areas of supermarket psychology involve the physical layouts of stores, product placement, right on down to the packaging.

Dr. Dan Pallesen, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist by training who says that supermarkets are, like other industries, constantly looking to shift your consumer behavior.

“When it comes to supermarkets, the moment you walk through those doors you're being nudged. They're trying to get you to spend more money, they're trying to get you to buy certain things over others, and so everything about that supermarket design is trying to influence behavior subtly or subconsciously.”

Versatility is Key

Shelley E. Kohan is an adjunct professor in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University and has worked in the retail industry for over 25 years. She told Verywell Mind that one of the trends she’s seeing is the localization of produce and how fixtures, store infrastructure such as shelving, have shifted over time towards comfort. 

“Historically, grocery stores kind of have a set format. So, they have fixtures that are placed, and then merchandise and food are put out based on the fixture placement. What we're seeing now is that there's a greater need to have more flexible fixturing. So for example, fixturing that is on wheels that can easily be moved.”

That movement, Kohan said, away from what’s known as the grid format—the traditional layout of a grocery store—allows for summery produce to be presented quickly and efficiently to invoke the feeling of health that can come with the changes of the seasons. Another example Kohan gave Verywell Mind is related to what’s called localization design. 

“We're seeing more localized produce. There you have a lot of the grocery stores, and even the discount stores that are selling grocery now, have an area where they sell localized produce that comes in and those fixturings might be in a pushcart to get the feel of a local farmer.”

Comparable to Financial Psychology

At the root of supermarket psychology is a drive to increase sales but Pallesen, who now works in wealth management, says he sees a lot of the same behaviors with his clients as someone who practices financial psychology and behavioral finance. 

Dr. Dan Pallesen, Psy.D

When it comes to supermarkets, the moment you walk through those doors you're being nudged. They're trying to get you to spend more money, they're trying to get you to buy certain things over others, and so everything about that supermarket design is trying to influence behavior subtly or subconsciously.

— Dr. Dan Pallesen, Psy.D

“It sort of boils down to: humans are not very good at making good long-term decisions. Like, we're really good at surviving in the moment. And a lot of our emotions and instincts are all geared toward day-to-day decisions to ensure our survival. But when it comes to investing for the long run, we're just not very good at it.”

COVID-19 Marks Yet Another Shift

Another shift Kohan has seen is related to the COVID pandemic. Not only has the aforementioned shift towards comfort become vital, but areas of stores that previously weren’t considered—like pickup areas for online orders—are now a significant part of day-to-day operations. 

“Gone are the days where it's just going to be a handwritten sign on an orange cone in the parking lot that says ‘pickup here’. They're really looking at, ‘Okay, how do we design this curbside pickup space to be efficient, to be nice, to be comfortable, convenient'… we anticipate that trend to continue, not to the degree it was during the pandemic, but certainly more than it was pre-pandemic.”

But just because you’re a clinical psychologist, and are heavily aware of these marketing strategies, doesn’t mean you don’t get caught up in them. Pallesen said he’s just as likely as anyone else to be swept up by the tricks that increase supermarket sales and, according to him, this is especially concerning when it comes to the diets of the average consumer and what’s called an obesogenic environment. 

“it's harder to be healthy than not because my entire environment both outside but then also once I get into the supermarket, is very intentional, and trying to expose me to the things that I like in the moment. So, the sweets, the salty, the pleasurable food that's not as good for you is out front and center…I have to be conscious that every part of that design is to try to get me to not just spend more money, but typically spend more money on things that aren't good for me.”

What This Means for You

Supermarkets deploy all sorts of strategies to get you to buy more of certain types of food. Being more aware of these psychological strategies can make you a more conscious consumer, and maybe even a healthier eater.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

    Milliman RE. Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppersJournal of Marketing. 1982;46(3):86-91. doi:10.1177/002224298204600313

  2. Mufeeth MM, Mubarak ANM. Effects of background music tempo on the behavior and emotional status of supermarket customers. Journal of Business Economics. 2020;2(1):51-58.

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.