By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.
A visit to our favorite grocery store can become routine. We know where items are located and we pick up our favorite brands.
What we may not understand is why the grocery store is laid out the way it is. Why are some items displayed at the end of an aisle or at the cash register? Why do some brands get shelved at eye level while other brands get the bottom shelf or the very top one? The answer is food marketing.
Nearly all large American supermarket chains generally follow the same layout, offer the same products, and use the same display techniques, according to Gary Rivlin, an investigative reporter who wrote “Rigged: Supermarket Shelves for Sale” for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2016.
Grocers use a plan to keep customers efficiently moving through the aisles and spending money. End aisle displays, center aisle cardboard displays and the checkout aisle are prime real estate to sell more products, often as impulse buys. Food manufacturers pay for these locations in large grocery store chains, Rivlin found. Grocers only have so much space, so it may be necessary for food manufacturers to make a deal.
The payments or trade fees that manufacturers make to retailers influence which products are offered and how they are displayed. Many consumer and nutrition advocates believe these placements help drive what we buy. Rivlin says contracts can insure that manufacturers’ products will be in the store and be well located. They may even pay to have them featured in the weekly advertisement or on the supermarket’s website.
The “bull’s-eye zone” is the front and center location on the shelf that manufacturers often pay for. Similar products by brands that are not nationally recognized may be below this eye-level location and can cost less. Top shelves may hold some local items or products from small companies that the store’s management has chosen.
Space by the cash register is prime. It’s often stocked with candy because many shoppers don’t go in the candy aisle. But everyone needs to go through the checkout. Impulse buys at the checkout can account for more than half of a candy-maker’s profits in a store.
Mary Story, associate director for academic programs at the Duke Global Health Institute, is a leading scholar on child and adolescent nutrition and child obesity prevention. In Rivlin’s report, she says: “If you look at the checkout aisle and the endcaps, it tends to be soda and snacks and other highly processed foods. If you want people to eat healthier — and if you don’t want them to get soft drinks or Pop-Tarts or chips or any of these foods that are highly processed — we need to better understand the factors that put those foods there in the first place.”
Trade fees can also include a slotting fee that manufacturers pay just to get their product in a store. The Federal Trade Commission studied slotting fees in 2001 and 2003. The FTC noted the fees shut out smaller competitors and meant fewer choices for consumers but both reports concluded further study was needed before the federal agency could take action.
Your favorite grocery store may or may not be operating with trading fees but it still pays to be a savvy shopper. Here are some tips to help you be a better shopper – and eat healthier:
- Always shop with a list and stick to it to help avoid impulse buys. Often our impulses tend toward less healthy products with more sugar and more sodium.
- If you’re pulled to an end aisle display, check similar products in the aisle itself to see if the displayed product is really a good deal. Then check up and down the shelf, not just the products at eye level. You may even find a product that’s lower in sugar and sodium. For example, I find my favorite unsalted chicken stock on the bottom shelf. I’ve never found it on an end aisle.
- Experiment with new brands of a product. If you’ve used the same brand for decades, you may be pleasantly surprised to find another that tastes good and is healthier.
- Buy more fresh produce since trade fees are rarely allotted in this area. It will also help you eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Promote a healthier checkout space by requesting a candy-free aisle in your favorite store.