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HEALTH HORIZONS : PSYCHOLOGY : Supermarket Psychology : Modern grocery shoppers are the targets of a sophisticated system designed to make them stay longer and spend more

October 18, 1992|JANNY SCOTT | Janny Scott is a medical writer for The Times

I've always felt a certain fondness for supermarkets. At their best, they seem to embody something wonderful about life. Beyond the whirring doors, their twinkling aisles hold out the promise of adventure and reassurance in exquisite balance.

A good supermarket possesses a feeling of effortlessness. Red-leaf lettuce glistens under perpetually new-fallen dew. Bosc pears rise in perfect pyramids. No mustard pot is out of place. Gliding through the wide-open spaces feels like waltzing with Fred Astaire.

At my neighborhood market, I detach a cart and slide out into the current of traffic. We ebb north past the salad bar into a glittering archipelago of produce. Then onward, past the plants, to the dairy case stretching for miles--eggs, milk, domestic cheese.

I hug the perimeter, mostly--the broad linoleum boulevards lined with staples, wafting shoppers along on a full lap around the store. Occasionally, I slip off into the quiet eddy of an aisle, in search of birdseed, earplugs, a jar of rubbed Dalmatian sage.

The manager is silver-haired and solicitous. His troops are maroon-aproned and multicultural. They offer one final choice at check-out: Paper or plastic? While I read up on Princess Di, the goods skim across the laser scanners. Have a nice day!

What a felicitous occasion, this supermarket ritual. Which makes it especially difficult to accept what I should have suspected all along: Almost everything about supermarkets is studiously calculated to get the shopper to do what the supermarket wants.

Supermarket psychology, I have learned, is practically a science. It is governed by lab-tested principles and meticulous observation. Consultants churn out papers on such matters as unplanned purchasing and the effectiveness of shopping-cart signage.

The goal of all this effort is not, one might guess, to improve the American diet. Nor is it to strike an ideal balance between nutrition, convenience and cost. The aim, seasoned observers inform me, is quite simple: It is to get the shopper to spend more money.

"The design of the store and everything that goes on in it," said Martin Sloane, executive officer of the National Alliance of Supermarket Shoppers, a consumer advocacy group, "is calculated to increase the average size of the grocery bill."

The world of supermarkets, it turns out, is dog-eat-dog. Nationwide, the profit margin shivers at below 1%. Convenience stores, fast-food joints and discount warehouses nibble at the industry's fringes. Longtime customers teeter on the brink of defection.

Shopping trends are in rapid, bewildering flux. More men ar buying groceries, more singles shopping and dining alone. Women no longer sit at home, sharpening the shopping list. Instead, they hit the market en route from work, making a beeline for whatever they remember.

All of those trends encourage impulse buying, experts suggest. And impulse buying is something supermarkets eagerly promote.

So modern-day shoppers have left themselves, more than ever, at the mercy of what is known as in-store promotion.

The success or failure of those tactics--some subtle, some not--can be tracked almost minute by minute, thanks to advances in supermarket technology. With laser scanning, store managers know almost immediately which of their gimmicks is paying off.

Automatic coupon dispensers, with flashing red lights, protrude from supermarket shelves. Digital billboards call out to shoppers: "Wake up to Pop Tarts." Chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and marzipan fruits beckon from special display cases.

Weary shoppers stop at the espresso bar for a mid-trip jolt. Baskets of cheeses adorn the wine racks. Cases of beer rub up against the ice chests which rub up against the plastic sandals--for when you take your beer in your ice chest to the beach.

The industry is "moving toward pinpoint sophistication in product movement and clustering," one market-research guru said recently. Woe betide the unsuspecting consumer, outsmarted in the battle for hearts, minds and dollars.

A few principles for greenhorns in the world of supermarket persuasion:

* Whatever first catches the eye probably makes the market a lot of money.

Ever notice how the produce department is the first you encounter? Or, in some stores, it's the deli section with its dazzling bazaar of "fresh prepared" foods? Or how smaller, brand-name items happen to be at eye level on every aisle, bulk items down near your feet?

The reason, experts say, is usually markup and profit. Fruit and vegetables are marked up higher than most things in the store. Fresh prepared food is even higher. And studies show that the most heavily shopped areas are the ones that shoppers visit first.

As for shelving, smaller-sized and brand-name items tend to be the most profitable. So they go at eye level, where the shopper looks first. Giant sizes are on the bottom shelf not because they're heavy, experts say; the store would just prefer you buy small.

* Supermarkets are designed to keep shoppers in the store.

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