Manipulating Alley Ways

I grew up in a seaside town in The Netherlands, located just north-west of Amsterdam.

We had the luxury that a large van pulled up into our street every week, filled with all the must-haves ingredients to get us through the week. You entered the van, and a simple one-alley van with shelves left, right, front and back, filled with the basics presented itself. In short, all that a family needed and all stacked without turning left or right to find salt. 

Every Friday, the local wet market was a one-street happening of fun, good food and festivities. Fish, vegetables, cheese, and bread, just turn your head and voila, it was there!

As easy as the proverbial pie. 

Nowadays, I have my favourite supermarkets and grocery stores. 

For some, a source of inspiration when not knowing what’s for dinner. For another, it is their mission to find the exit as quickly as possible. The latter may be because of the simple temptation of seeing all that food, those delicious snacks, or perhaps slightly annoyed by the children begging their parents to get that bag of candy.

Just like you, I, too, have gotten lost in a labyrinth of narrow supermarket alleys in search for a specific brand of Himalayan pink salt. Said to be one of the healthiest salt brands in the market. Or that’s what the label tells you. I can’t taste any difference with normal sea salt, can you?

Times have changed since I grew up. Psychology has entered the design of the modern supermarket.

Nowadays, supermarket alleys are set-up with a deeper understanding on how the human mind works and what triggers more purchases. This smart set-up incorporates many revenue-increasing tricks such as what product goes on eye level. Extensive strategies now exist where the fresh produce needs to be placed to lure in (more) customers. All to make you buy more and buy specific products other than those you had on your shopping list.

The fresh produce can often be found at the store’s entrance. A first ‘fresh’ impression is very important for store managers and owners. Having the vegetables and fruits just entering this food Valhalla has been a sign of seeing the supermarket as “healthy”. Subconsciously, we feel that we enter a place where food, fresh from the land (or so it says on the package), is at your disposal and ready for purchase.

Wide alleys, and on average more employees working through stocking up new deliveries characterize these parts. Again, these larger spaces emphasize that your grocery store cares for good health. After all, it takes up so much space, so it is good!

Yet, it is all set up for you to buy more than you need before entering all other parts.

Once you steer deeper into the maze, the smaller the alleys, the more tempted the choices for our brain. When thinking about it, it makes sense to have food with lots of preservatives, sealed food with unpronounceable ingredients on its labels, in these two-cart wide lanes. One main reason is that these alleys do not need as much attention like, for example, the vegetables section.

The other trick is that the alley width makes you stop more to allow another shopping smoothly passing by while you wait. Your eyes scan the shelves, and boom! you buy that tempting looking snack, which hasn’t found a spot on your shopping list. An even smarter design of a supermarket follows because they learn from your purchase and can further craft consumer consumption around psychology.

Kid’s favourites? Trust me, they are all placed on their eye level.

Scientists have found out that when brands use specific colours. Or what type of images are added on the packaging is another well-studied topic in consumer behaviour. These subconscious triggers can work as an incremental sales stimulant. Or trying to read the small(er) prints of how many calories are in 100 grammes (and the inaccuracies on these food labels) is inside this “precious treasure”.

How the lights are shining on a shelf. How brands pay supermarkets to have their products on eye height while similar (perhaps less expensive but healthier alternative) brands are at the bottom.

The list goes on and on.

It revolves around how we can be manipulated in these modern times. The deeper understanding of the human psyche.

This manipulation of alley ways is orchestrated in such a way just to push for more sales. It is all designed to work on our hunger and emotional purchase cues. These so-called impulse purchases are not triggered by our stomach; they are connected directly to how our brain works. What our eyes see, our brain interprets as ‘food is coming” before it signals our stomach to warm up, get ready and start secreting those enzymes to break down what’s on the way down. You will notice that the most popular items are in the very heart of the labyrinth.

Once again, design equals psychology enters the realm of supermarket paradise.

Supermarkets know what music they need to play, and that windows are a distraction so that you can keep your eyes peeled on what they have on offer.

I bet you – find a supermarket with windows on more than just one side, good luck!

Or try to find a clock – there hardly is one.

Even the size of shopping carts has slowly increased just for any shopper to load their cart fuller. 

It is all about keeping you longer under their spell. The more food you see, the more you buy. The rationale fades away, and the emotional shopping takes over. The more food you buy, the larger the chance you will eat it. The more food you eat, well, the results are known.

Food is fuel. 

Food is not therapy. 

Supermarket strategies tend to fall more towards patrons buying more emotionally. The more they know about the mind mind, the more they design their next supermarket by using psychology to increase (emotional) sales.

When increasing your time in these strategically designed supermarkets, the chances that you will fall into their trap can increase significantly. Aim to avoid emotional grocery shopping, dive into a supermarket with something in your stomach, and be adamant about sticking to your shopping list.

Some guidance needed to take this one step further? Happy to navigate through the labyrinth of improving your environment.

A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions. | John Kenneth Galbraith

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