Product Placement and Obesity in Grocery Stores

Think of this thought for a second:

When you walk through a grocery store, do you navigate around junk food and stick to the outside aisles, or do you succumb to the displays of sugar heaven?

A paper published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine argues that “the prominent placement of unhealthful food items in stores contributes to the obesity epidemic — and that it therefore should be curbed”.

Deborah Cohen of RAND Health in Santa Monica, Calif., and Susan Babey of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research write in their Perspective piece “Candy at the Cash Register — A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease:

“Our response to the nation’s obesity problem has relied on a “basic misconception” that our food choices are conscious and deliberate and are guided by our actual desires…people who say they want to lose weight would easily be able to do so; their desire to lose weight would compel them to seek foods that comport with that goal”.

The authors continue to argue that the reason that the desire to lose weight fails to compel, is because of outside signals and stimuli. While shopping, the displays on the outside of the end rack shelves and the impulse section at the checkout line is what does the damage to our self-control; even if we went to the store for something simple like batteries, when vendors are paying to have their sodas, chips and candy bars in our face as we check out, our decision making becomes influenced.

This battle the shopper is unknowingly fighting is against “impulse shopping”—where enticements are weighed in on us at the subconscious level. The authors added, “Often people regret their purchases of candies, sodas, chips and cookies. They may recognize that they were impulsive but have no way of avoiding being confronted with these goods, even if they initially went into the store seeking other products.”

With that in mind, the authors argue, poses a big public-health problem:

The placement of junk foods in strategic and prominent locations cause an increase in purchase rates which causes a domino effect leading to more consumption of foods high in sugar, fat, and salt—the major causes of many food related chronic diseases. This brings the argument into a compelling state that causes this question: “should the placement of junk food be treated as a risk factor for diseases?”  For the sake of public health implications, to mitigate these risks there should be steps taken immediately.

Those steps, the authors suggest, might include developing “regulations that could govern the design and placement of foods in retail outlets to protect consumers” and “limiting the types of foods that can be displayed in prominent end-of-aisle locations and restricting foods associated with chronic diseases to locations that require a deliberate search to find. Harnessing marketing research to control obesity could help millions of people who desperately want to reduce their risks of chronic diseases,” the paper concludes.

 

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