How the Check Out Aisle is Hurting Our Health


It’s the end of your shopping trip. You’ve fought through the crowds, you’ve made the tough decisions after price comparisons, and finally you get to the checkout aisle. Exhausted and brain-fried while you wait your turn, there it is. It calls to you—beckons, really. “Eat me!” says the candy on display. “Don’t think, just buy me!”

While the post-shopping impulse-buy check-out aisle treat may feel like a small failure to most of us, a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) explains that this purchase is actually the result of an elaborately crafted marketing system intended to capture us at our absolute weakest. In other words, don’t feel guilty—you were trapped.

The report, Temptation at Checkout: The Food Industry’s Sneaky Strategy for Selling More, examines the power of the checkout aisle. Everyone making a purchase must pass through, so the items displayed are visually unavoidable, creating a prime stage for selling ANYTHING. In fact, the report discusses multiple instances where sales of non-food items, such as hand sanitizer, got a big bump in sales due to checkout aisle placement. The report also discusses how “decision fatigue”— the psychological phenomenon wherein people have a harder time making decisions that are in their best interest after making a series of decisions—is a real factor in impulse buys.

Enter Big Food into the fray. According to the report, they pay a “placement fee” to have their products prominently displayed in the checkout aisle. And, of course, what better items to put in the aisle then junk-food—products proven to be harder to resist. In fact, the report cites a study showing that people who bought junk food at checkout often intentionally avoid buying those items from the grocery store shelves. In the CSPI press release, Maragret Wootan, CSPI Nutrition Policy Director, lambasts the practice:

Foisting candy, chips, soda, and other sugary drinks upon customers at the end of a shopping trip exploits human psychology and basic biology, making shoppers vulnerable to consuming additional calories, added sugars, and saturated fat that put their health at risk,”

The report points out that checkout could just as easily be used for good instead of evil. For instance, CSPI suggests that retailers could just as easily put healthy foods in checkouts to encourage healthy snacking habits. There are multiple examples of “healthy checkout” pilot programs across the U.S. where stores have eliminated junk food in one or more checkouts, often with success. They also mention that there are three retailers in the UK who have rid all checkout aisles of junk food.

CSPI, as always, graciously provides us with recommendations for changing the checkout system to promote health:

  • Supermarkets and other stores that sell food, like Target, Walmart, and 7-Eleven, should adopt food and nutrition standards for checkout, selling only non-food and healthier food and beverage options there.

  • Non‐food stores should remove food and beverages from checkout.

  • Like food manufacturers have agreed to policies on food marketing to children, they should voluntarily agree not to use placement fees to induce retailers to place unhealthy foods and beverages at checkout.

  • Policymakers should implement policies that set nutrition standards for retail checkout, addressing impulse marketing of foods that increase the risk of chronic diseases.

  • Health departments, other government agencies, hospitals, and other institutions should adopt healthy checkout policies for the properties they own or manage.

  • Individuals should urge retailers and policymakers to remove unhealthy foods and beverages at the checkout line.

Once again, CSPI has shed some light on why subtle manipulation is a status quo that we can change.

Image via Flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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