Removing candy, potato chips and other unhealthful snacks from supermarket checkout lines dramatically reduces the amount of those foods that shoppers purchase, a new British study suggests.
And it wasn’t just because shoppers were grabbing fewer snacks to eat “on the go.” The study also found that when the checkout lines were free of junk food, the shoppers were bringing less of the stuff into their homes as well.
The study’s findings, which were published Wednesday in the journal Plos Medicine, offer yet more evidence of the important role that built (human-made) environments within our communities, including the layout of supermarkets and other food establishments, play in promoting healthy — or unhealthy — behaviors.
“Our findings suggest that by removing sweets and crisps [potato chips] from the checkout, supermarkets can have a positive influence on the types of purchases their shoppers make,” said Katrine Ejlerskov, a Danish epidemiologist who worked on the study while at the University of Cambridge, in a released statement.
“This would be a relatively simple intervention with the potential to encourage healthier eating,” she added. “Many of these purchases may have been impulse buys, so if the shopper doesn’t pick up a chocolate bar at the till, it may be one less chocolate bar that they consume.”
As background information in the study points out (and as all astute shoppers know), supermarkets, like other retailers, use product placement and displays to encourage consumers to buy particular products.
“One example of in-store marketing is the positioning of food at supermarket checkouts,” the study’s authors write. “Checkouts provide a unique location for prompting purchases, as all customers have to pass through them to pay and may spend considerable time in queues. Internationally, the majority of food at supermarket checkout is of the type that governmental recommendations do not encourage greater consumption of.”
In the United Kingdom — and in the United States — some supermarkets have recently begun to remove unhealthful foods from their checkout areas, sometimes replacing them with more healthful options. Adams and her colleagues decided to examine the effect these voluntary checkout food policies might be having on shoppers’ purchasing habits.
The researchers began by examining purchasing data collected from more than 30,000 U.K. households. The data included the households’ weekly food purchases from nine major U.K. supermarket chains, including six that had introduced new policies between 2013 and 2017 to make their checkout offerings more healthful.
Because the data did not designate where in the stores different items were bought, the researchers focused on three common categories of snack foods — confectionary, chocolate and potato chips — sold in single-portion or small packages. Those items are the ones most likely to be found at checkout lines. The researchers looked at the amount of these snacks purchased by the 30,000 households in the 12 months before and after the supermarkets implemented their new checkout food policies.
They found that the removal of snacks from the checkout lines was associated with an immediate 17 percent drop in the purchase of such items. A year later, the purchase of those snack items was still down by 15 percent.
The researchers also wanted to see if the healthier checkout policies reduced not just impulse purchases, but impulse eating. To do this, they looked at 2016-2017 data from 7,500 shoppers who recorded everything they had bought and eaten “on the go” (before they got home). The researchers compared the on-the-go snack purchases made at supermarkets with healthful checkout food policies to those made at stores without those policies.
They found that shoppers made 76 percent fewer annual purchases of the types of snack foods commonly sold at checkout counters when they shopped at stores with the healthful checkout policies.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with several important limitations. Most notably, the study was observational and thus doesn’t prove that the grocery stores’ checkout food policies were the direct reason for the drop in snack food purchases. Other factors — some as-yet unidentified differences between the stores that changed their checkout policies and those that didn’t — may have led to the reductions.
Also, the study was not able to determine if shoppers simply switched to buying larger packages of snack foods from their supermarkets — or if they purchased the snacks from other types of stores.
Still, the study provides, say its authors, an intriguing contribution “to the small but growing literature on industry-led activities to promote healthier diets.”
“Many snacks picked up at the checkout may be unplanned, impulse buys — and the options tend to be confectionary, chocolate or crisps [potato chips],” says Jean Adams, the study’s senior author and an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, in a released statement.
“It may seem obvious that removing unhealthy food options from the checkout would reduce the amount that people buy,” she adds, “but it is evidence such as this that helps build the case for government interventions to improve unhealthy behaviors.”
FMI: You can read the study in full on the Plos Medicine website.