It is a truth universally acknowledged that a supermarket manager in search of a fortune will put the milk at the back of the store. These Machiavellian types want to make us go through the whole store to get to the milk so that we will then end up buying loads of things we hadn’t planned on getting. This view is reflected in this video from Michael Pollan:
To be honest I don’t really know why supermarkets put milk at the back. I am just used to it being there. It could be because it’s easier to deliver it there. Perhaps shoppers prefer it there. But what I do know is that the Pollan answer is not the only possible explanation. It seems to me a case of lazy thinking. Here are a couple of cases where popular items are not placed at the back of the store. There was a study carried out at a petrol station at lunchtime. Putting sandwiches at the end of an aisle crammed with enticing potential impulse buys did not produce the desired result. Shoppers did not get distracted, but it did annoy them and the store did risk their going somewhere else. And do bookshops put the most popular books at the back of the store in order to get customers to fill their baskets with books? No, they are at the front, where it’s most convenient.
Supermarkets are looking to eke out maximum turnover and profit from each square metre of shelf space. They are not concerned with which brand sells best – their own bottom line is of course their main concern – but only with total sales. They therefore need to be convinced that any display will increase their overall profits.
Location is the key. The best positions are scarce and companies will pay accordingly. Traditionally it has been believed that shoppers are more likely to notice a product at eye level. However, according to Siemon Scamell-Katz, author of The Art of Shopping, this is not the case. Using eye-tracking technology he was able to show that we naturally look lower than eye level, somewhere between waist and chest level. When Scamell-Katz presented this evidence to Procter & Gamble, a client of his at that time, the company began negotiating for lower shelves. The supermarket bosses may have been surprised, but. It worked and sales increased.
Another myth is that supermarkets are constantly moving things around to confuse us. This may happen at times. However, if you disrupt people, they may well buy less. Shoppers build maps of stores, allowing them to ignore aisle markers and even shopping lists. Memory and signpost brands enable them to navigate the store as if on auto-pilot. When they are unable to find the products they want, they get frustrated. They may end up leaving the store empty-handed, or taking their custom to a competitor. Customers value convenience. As Scamell-Katz says:
“If you make it easy for the shopper on a mission to buy bread, they’ll come back, and are more likely to do their main shop there as well.”
I am a little sceptical of the notion that consumers are lab rats that can be easily hoodwinked. In this vision we are hapless victims who need to be saved by experts with special knowledge like Pollan. I take it as a given that supermarkets are out to get the money in our wallets. I also believe we have mental foibles, cognitive biases that can mould our behaviour. We dispose of limited time on this earth; it is simply not possible to do a cost-benefit analysis of every purchase. We need heuristics, those mental short cuts that enable us to maximise our most valuable resource – time. Supermarkets know this, and I’m sure they try to manipulate us. But there is a big difference between what stores want to do and what they can do. The urge to trick us is generally constrained by competition. A store that does not think of its customers’ convenience and make their experience relatively pleasant will surely struggle. Ultimately stores reflect what we desire. This is the power we have as consumers. We can be hapful. A store that blatantly tries to hoodwink its customers will soon find them taking their custom elsewhere. I will finish with this quote from Tim Harford in his book The Undercover Economist:
But this is an example of a universal truth about supermarkets: they are full of close (or not so close) substitutes, some cheap, some expensive, and with a strong random element to the pricing. The random element is there so that only shoppers who are careful to notice, remember, and compare prices will get the best bargains. If you want to outwit the supermarkets, simple observation is your best weapon. And if you can’t be bothered to do that, you really don’t need to save money.