How Little “Nudges” In The Supermarket Could Encourage People To Eat Better

Instead of mandating that people eat more healthy foods, what if our supermarkets were designed to subtly push them to making the right decision themselves.

How Little “Nudges” In The Supermarket Could Encourage People To Eat Better
[Image: Kunal Mehta via Shutterstock]

At this point, we’re all more than aware that a healthy diet includes a high dose of fruits and vegetables. The message is drummed into us on TV, by our spouses, and on sites like this one. But at the “moment of truth”–the shopping aisle– all of this advice is often forgotten. What seemed like a good idea in the abstract comes up against the reality of ice cream bars and frozen pizza.


People also don’t like being told what to do. Didactic messaging, like Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on super-sized drinks, can provoke perverse behavior, such as people going out and buying the biggest drink possible, just to poke City Hall in the eye.

To get around these problems, two researchers at New Mexico State University, have been trying a more subtle approach: “nudges and cues” that encourage behavioral change, rather than mandating or hectoring about it. The experiments are described in a fascinating recent piece by Michael Moss, in the New York Times.

In one test, foot-wide mirrors were placed on the inside of shopping carts in an attempt to remind shoppers of their good intentions:

The sight was meant to be a splash of reality in the otherwise anonymous la-la land of food shopping, a reminder of who he was, how he looked and perhaps what he had come in for. And if the spell cast by the store wasn’t entirely broken, it seemed to have lost at least some of its grip.

In another, the researchers placed placards on the cart telling people how much produce the average customer buys, conveying “social norms, or acceptable behavior.” A third placed large green arrows on the floor showing the way to the produce section.

The experiments proved surprisingly successful. The placards, for example, increased produce sales by 10% in one week. Lowe’s, which hosted in the trials in New Mexico, now plans to expand them to more of its stores.

The “nudge marketing,” which is based on behavioral science, is the equivalent of putting certain sugary items at eye-level or placing high-calorie snacks near the check-out. They leave the choice with individuals, albeit on loaded terms. Moss says the nudges are “outmaneuvering the processed-food giants on their own turf, using their own tricks.” Such methods are also more politically palatable to conservatives who criticize nannying government programs, he notes.


Collin Payne, one of the researchers, said the nudges make customers more mindful when they’re in the aisle, evening up the chances they’ll make better decisions. “The more mindless you are when you shop, the more you are going to be poked and prodded to buy the manufacturer’s products,” he told Moss. “We’re trying to give consumers the same power the companies have.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.