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Shelf control: The psychology of grocery shopping

Tony the tiger and other familiar faces are purposefully placed on the bottom shelves of grocery stores to attract the attention of children shopping with their parents.

Tony the tiger and other familiar faces are purposefully placed on the bottom shelves of grocery stores to attract the attention of children shopping with their parents.

October 27, 2008

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On the street

What do you do to save money when shopping for groceries?

I look for the sale tags, but I don’t do coupons. I usually ignore the end caps, because a lot of times it’s stuff I don’t really want, and if it is, then I’d rather see its price along with the other products like it.

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The fine art of super-marketing

Some common types of grocery store marketing, according to various Web sites that follow the trends:

Smell: Bakeries often are near the front of stores so the smell of fresh bread makes shoppers hungry at the beginning of their shopping trip.

Sight: Floral departments often are toward the front of the store to provide a pleasing sight as shoppers walk in the door.

Buying in bulk: Large containers of items such as pasta don't always mean savings - they sometimes just mean you're buying more and spending more. Check the per-ounce price for a real comparison.

Back of the store: Essentials such as milk and eggs often are placed at the back of the store, so shoppers must travel through the entire store to get to them - and sometimes pick up other items along the way.

Impulse buys - There's a reason for those candy shelves near the checkout. Children waiting in line with their parents can get restless, and it can be hard for parents to say no to their sweet tooth. (Adults are often guilty of this as well.)

A typical Midwest grocer stocks 60,000 or so items. It may be simple math that determines the amount of goods that fit comfortably in each individual store, but it's something of a science when it comes to figuring out how those items are displayed.

That's why stores devote a considerable amount of time, effort and money to designing their layouts.

"We want to fill your senses right off the bat," says John Olson, store director of Hy-Vee, 3504 Clinton Parkway.

"The produce now - as you see in every grocery store - is the one that sets the tone. It's got the seasonality, the color, the contrast, the smell."

Olson says this senses-based approach is a reasonably new development. The change in philosophy is evident when contrasting his south-side store with the newer north-side Hy-Vee located on Sixth Street.

"Here, you get your cart in the center of the store and go by all the cash registers. You don't really start your shopping until you're 50 feet inside the store. The Sixth Street store you can see the change we made. You get your cart and you're immediately into the perishable, fresh aisle. That's the preferred way."

Smaller, more specialized groceries develop their own strategies.

"Our store may not be totally typical for a conventional grocery store," says Jeanie Wells, manager of The Merc, 901 Iowa.

Wells says The Merc strives to make the fresh foods instantly visible and easily accessible. That means the produce is on display first, neighbored by cheese and meat.

"A lot of our shoppers come in here without a list," she says. "They're going to create their shopping list as they walk around. They'll say, 'Oh, those tomatoes look good. I think I'll bake tomatoes with some chÃvre cheese.' They're putting it together as they shop."

Step by step

Larger chains tend to structure their aisles in a more linear fashion.

"Most people think of their meal idea around the center of the plate," Olson says. "What we've tried to do here is set things up with meal ideas. The second aisle has Italian, Chinese, Hamburger Helper, canned meat dinners. Then the third aisle is the side dishes and condiments."

Hy-Vee tends to work around a premise known as "adjacencies."

"For example, we have cereal, Pop Tarts, breakfast juices and pancakes all on the same aisle. We have all the baking items together. Now if you have the baking items on the fourth aisle versus the seventh aisle, I'm not sure there is much difference," he says.

One concept that tends to be different from store to store is where the frozen food section resides. Some outlets place the section on either end. But for stores such as Dillons and Hy-Vee, the strategy is to put it in the middle because frozen foods represent a higher profit.

"We don't want people to miss it," Olson says.

Bygone days

Certain fundamental layouts in a grocery are holdovers from bygone days.

Take the meat department, for instance. Thirty or 40 years ago, meat still came in on a carcass. Workers would typically haul the carcass off a truck, throw it on a meat hook and roll it into the store on a rail. For obvious purposes, stores didn't want their customers to witness this bloody display, so they sequestered the department in the back of the building.

"That never really changed. But today with boxed beef and pre-trade beef, we could probably put the department anywhere," Olson says.

Others are the result of product marketing and distribution deals companies make with the stores. Some are just based on common sense.

Olson cites the cereal aisle, where the sugared cereals are placed below eye level so that kids can see them, while the healthier fare gets stacked higher.

"That's not exactly an industry secret," Olson says.

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