Farm-gate to plate: how to prime consumers’ brains for the ‘buy’ decision




ontario pork news

Farm-gate to plate: how to prime consumers’ brains for the ‘buy’ decision

Dr. Brynn Winegard

  • 8 November 2016

Dr. Brynn Winegard is an award-winning professor, speaker, and writer. Brynn completed her formal education at the Schulich School of Business (MBA, PhD) in business and McMaster University in Neuroscience and Psychology. After over a decade in corporate marketing working for Pfizer Inc., Nestle Inc., and Johnson & Johnson Inc, Brynn has dedicated herself to speaking about ‘Building a Better Business Brain’ to groups, organizations and companies, stemming from her research, which combines neuroscience and business. Dr. Winegard retains positions as Faculty at Schulich School of Business’s Executive Education Centre, an Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University, and Executive Faculty in Guelph University’s College of Business and Economics.


Retailers: Moving Products From Farm to Fork Requires Consumer Brains to Make the ‘Buy’ Decision in Your Stores

Obvious and simple, right? 

So why aren’t products flying, in mass quantities, easily, unquestioned off your shelves?

Authors, scholars, and retailers alike have attempted to understand how and why it is that the same consumers will answer one way in-person or on a survey and do something else at-shelf. 

To their frustration, those serving consumers often found that consumers would respond to a survey or focus group question one way about a buy decision (e.g. “I would definitely buy that, for sure, yeah”), but would ultimately make very different decisions once they were standing at-shelf (“I didn’t even notice it there to be honest, I guess I decided I really wanted other stuff”). 

 The discrepancy between consumer self-reported survey data and actual shopper behaviour long puzzled the best of market researchers: 
Maybe the survey instrument was skewing responses? 
Maybe the statistical sample was unreliable? 
Maybe the focus group moderator asked questions the wrong way? 

Why do consumers make different decisions at-shelf than they indicated they would on the survey or in the focus group? Something mysterious and interesting happens in the conversion between ‘prospective consumer who is self-reporting likelihood of a future purchase’ and ‘actual shopper who is deciding on purchase choice for themselves and family, in-situ, in real time.’ 

Who was lying, the data or the consumers?

Recent advances in brain science and a better understanding of how the human brain truly makes consumption decisions helped explain this mysterious phenomenon: as it turns out, survey responses are answered with a person’s (mostly) conscious brain, while shopping and purchase decisions are largely decided by the subconscious brain. 

The consumer and shopper data didn’t match up because there are two different parts of the same person’s brain accomplishing each task—the brain contemplating decisions, formulating answers, and responding to the research questions wasn’t the same part of the brain in operation when the consumer showed up to the grocery store shelf that day.


Remember that for the most part shopping is accomplished using a sub-conscious part of the brain—one that is easily suggested and hinted to. In order to do this effectively, however, retailers are going to have to get a lot more familiar with my favourite science, a new kind of consumer insight—a division of brain science called ‘social cognitive neuroscience’ (SCN).

Over the next few months I am going to release a custom-created series of articles, sponsored by Ontario Pork, that could serve as resources for grocery retailers interested in learning practical ways to use social cognitive neuroscience insights in their stores.

This will help maximize KPIs like <basket-size, inventory turnover, profit-per-square-foot, among other metrics that might be of interest: much like I did in this episode of CBC Marketplace for an independently run, medium-sized Toronto grocery store. 

Priming brains for making the ‘buy’ decision in your store

Subconscious supreme: With little variation between people, 90% of your neural matter, and up to 95% of your (and everybody else’s) decisions are made subconsciously. 

The biological reason for all of this sub- and un-conscious processing is because our brains are very energetically expensive organs to run—up to 40% of your calories and oxygen is constantly being used by your brain. As fuel usage goes, that’s not just one heck of a grocery bill, it’s also the reason your brain is constantly looking for ways to economize and be more efficient. 

 Cognitive compromises: One of the best ways for the brain to be more economical and ‘fuel-efficient’ is to use cognitive ‘short-cuts’—pre-set pathways that are the ‘path of least resistance’ from a processing perspective. We are far more susceptible to suggestion, influenced subconsciously, and gullible than any of us would like to believe—especially and including subtle marketing and persuasion tactics being played on us all the time in a commercial and retail context.

 A brain-based ‘buy’ button? While this sounds on the surface like bad news for unsuspecting consumers in face of prepared marketers or retailers, forewarned is forearmed. Ultimately there is no ‘buy button’ in the brain, because consumers can always over-ride, or find ways to return, product decisions they aren’t completely satisfied with. 

Accordingly, researchers in the consumer decision-making realm (including SCN) have been industrious, finding proven ways to prime, persuade, and please the consumer brain into being predisposed to buying, making the buy decision, and have more post-purchase satisfaction than ever before. 

After all, modern industrialism and consumerism isn’t dwindling: by all accounts consumption rates are up on a global scale for every kind of consumer good. This requires that competitive retailers stay as frontier and savvy as possible when it comes to the new consumer insight sciences available.

Let’s take a look:


  De-clutter your space

 Don’t be afraid of ‘white space’. Retailers will often fill every nook and cranny of a print campaign or square-footage of a retail space. Whether it’s words, posters, inventory, carts, flyers, people, or things—a lack of white space is overwhelming to the senses and puts people off. 
Maintain a very high standard for cleanliness in the store—especially in the grocery category. Shoppers start to notice debris and cleanliness standards starting in the parking lot and extending throughout the experience to the cashiers and cash-registers: make sure their impression is that you’re as clean as the food they’d want to eat.
Colour-block’ things of similar colours or categories together (one way to visually ‘de-clutter’ at shelf without actually having to de-list SKUs).
• This is why organized shelves sell well and ‘bargain bins’ don’t—disorganized, messy merchandise is overwhelming to the senses.
• Make obvious groupings so the consumers’ brain finds the searching, analyzing, and decision-making tasks cognitively easier.
Give shoppers a mental break between categories; covering every square inch of available space is mentally exhausting and doesn’t allow them a fresh perspective in the successive categories of goods. (If it all runs together, it’s all a blur, nothing stands out, and fatigue/irritation can set in quickly in the shopping journey).

Priming, anchoring and conditioning tactics

These tips will help increase overall expenditures and basket-size for the shopping trip:

Place higher-margin products near the highest-trafficked areas, and at the beginning of the consumer journey. This will help prime a consumer for what to expect in your retail space, as well as anchor them to higher price expectancies.
»Seeing higher prices at the beginning of the journey will increase willingness to pay higher prices throughout the rest of the store journey and decrease ‘sticker shock’ for rest of shopping trip (this effect is known as ‘price anchoring’).
Create cognitive conditioning toward category preference or purchase intent through repetition, such as by producing a category type early in the journey (ex. high-end, gourmet salad dressings paired with pre-made salads at front grab-and-go section). Then repeat it once or twice throughout the intended store pathway.  
» Categories ear-marked for higher turnover (e.g. perishables) should be presented to the shopper in more than one location of the store. This gives consumers more than one chance to decide in favour of a category.
» Prior episodes of interaction with the same category serve as subliminal signals about the importance of that category to them. 
Put new innovations, new products, new listings, etc. (typically highest margin) at the beginning of the shopping journey. This won’t just draw customers in and get them interested in the space and offering-set, but the halo effect will transfer to other products and categories in the store. As well, the price anchoring will ensure that everything else looks like a bargain in comparison throughout the rest of the shopping journey (especially the sale items!).

Casino lessons

Few valuable lessons have ever been taught in a casino—unless you’re a retailer!

Make sure no clocks or windows are visible. These remind people of the time of day, the outside world, their outside obligations, and how long they’ve been in the space already. And longer in the space means more likely to spend!
Allow access or provide samples of food and/or drink to keep people satiated. This makes customers contented to be there longer (if you take care of their physical needs, or make it extremely easy and inexpensive for them to do so, they won’t have to leave the store to accomplish this).
If possible, pump in fresh oxygen and light scents that keep people highly oxygenated, enjoying the space, and feeling fresh—this will entice them to stay in the space longer.
Make sure the overall retail space smells, looks, and feels great and is somewhere people want to ‘be’, as atmospherics are very important. This will help draw them in, keep them there, and prime them to spend.  Sensation spectacular
Throughout the shopping journey, make sure that there are tactical and senses-based stimulants working on the shopper:
Make sure shoppers can pick things up, touch them, hold them. Shoppers who touch items are 40% more likely to buy it.
Music should be ambient, moderate-slow in tempo, and present. The din of other people, traffic, employees, stocking etc. is stressful and dissuades purchase interest.
Include enticing visuals throughout the store. People are highly visual creatures—if a picture says ‘a thousand words’, then a video says a million. Don’t hesitate to use dynamic imagery throughout the store (e.g. LCD screens).
Make sure visual displays are appealing, things are colour-blocked, the store is clean, white space is evident, the inventory is un-cluttered etc.—this will help soothe and please all the five senses. 
Provide samples that will give people both a reason to believe in the quality of your products, but also a sense of indebtedness. Consumers will be more likely to reciprocate and buy what you allowed them to sample, as well as the other offerings in the store. (Research shows purchase interest goes up for the sampled category as well as all other subsequent categories).
Pump in or infuse appetite-arousing smells into localized areas of the retail space. Smell is very important, especially in the grocery category, in order to drive subliminal purchase intent and dilute any foul smelling odours (e.g. cleaning solutions, spills, fish, other people, etc.).

Ensuring taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight are all considered in combination in order to tantalize shoppers and increase purchase intent is very important—priming for purchase requires getting all the senses on-board and ready to spend!  
Thanks so much for reading this month’s article, part one in a three-part series. Please return next month for part two: “Farm-to-Fork: Persuading Brains to Make the ‘Buy’ Decision in Your Store.” 

Dr. Brynn L. Winegard

Ontario Pork

How else can we support you? Let us know at 1-887-ONT-PORK or [email protected]

Ontario Pork

About Us

Ontario Pork represents the 1,192 farmers who market 5.41 million hogs in the province. The organization is engaged in many areas, including research, government representation, environmental issues, consumer education and food quality assurance.

Subscribe to News

Get the latest Ontario Pork Retail news, join our email list.

Get the Latest News

Sign up for our newsletter.

Connect With Us

Learn more about our industry and stay in touch via our news articles and other resources found on one of our audience specific websites, and follow us on our social channels.

Terms Of Use | Privacy Statement | Copyright © 2024 Ontario Pork. All rights reserved.
Login | | Website by WebmontonMedia