Special Feature: Is Impulse Marketing a Public Health Risk?

grocery checkout

While the prominence of unhealthy food in U.S. retail locations is perhaps never more pronounced than it is now, in the days leading up to Halloween, store placement of candy and other junk food has a significant effect on consumer behavior year-round.

A clear example of this influence is the placement of candy at the cash register, widely acknowledged to be a promotional strategy called “impulse marketing,” which encourages spur-of-the-moment, emotional purchases.

In a recent editorial, RAND Health's Deborah Cohen, who studies how environmental and contextual factors influence health, argues that we should consider treating prominent store placement of unhealthy items as a hidden risk factor. Impulse marketing influences our food choices in a way that is largely automatic and out of our conscious control, which affects our risk of diet-related chronic diseases.

October, 2012

Just how effective is impulse marketing / in-store placement?

Evidence suggests that impulse marketing is very effective. In fact, the arrangement of products affects sales more than any other store feature.

Items that are at eye-level or just below eye-level sell better than items on top and bottom shelves. Goods placed in prominent end-of-aisle locations account for about 30% of all supermarket sales, and vendors pay a slotting fee to guarantee that their products will be placed there. Placing products in prominent locations or in spots where consumers will see them at the end of their shopping trip can increase their sales by as much as a factor of five. Candy, gum, soft drinks, and other “impulse” items placed at the checkout line represent 46% of all supermarket sales within these product categories.

Isn't resisting impulse marketing just a matter of self-control?

It's not that simple. In fact, the common misconception that consumers make food-related decisions consciously and deliberately has prevented an appropriate response to the obesity epidemic.

Research using eye-tracking equipment has shown that the attention drawn by special displays, particularly on the ends of aisles, has more to do with the displays' characteristics than with the goals and capacities of individual people. People lack the capacity to fully control their eye gaze, and what they look at the longest is the strongest predictor of what they'll buy.

Furthermore, most purchasing decisions are made automatically, usually in less than a second, without substantial cognitive input. And choices of foods high in fat and sugar are made more quickly than choices of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

What other factors can undermine shoppers' self-control?

Even when they consciously try to make healthy choices, individuals' ability to resist tempting foods in convenient locations wanes when they are distracted, under stress, tired, or have just made other decisions that deplete their cognitive capacity. Once this capacity is depleted, cognitive shortcuts dominate, and under these circumstances people are more likely to choose food high in sugar and fat.

Is impulse marketing / in-store placement a public health issue?

Yes. The public health implications of impulse marketing are perhaps best explained by the following chain of causation:

prominent placement of foods high in sugar, fat, and salt → increased rate of purchase → increased consumption → increased risk of chronic diseases

Harnessing marketing research to control obesity could help millions of people who desperately want to reduce their risks of chronic illness.

What policy options could help?

To counter the influence of impulse marketing, policymakers may restrict foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value to locations such as the back of the store, behind the counter, or in locations other than end-of-aisle or eye-level displays—locations that require a deliberate search to find. Additional regulations could determine which foods may be displayed at the cash register or in other prime locations.

For more information, please see:

  • Is Candy at the Cash Register a Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease?

    Oct 11, 2012

    Although placement is a factor that is right in front of our noses, we should consider treating it as a hidden risk factor, like carcinogens in water, because placement influences our food choices in a way that is largely automatic and out of our conscious control, write Deborah A. Cohen and Susan H. Babey.