Grocery retailers: how to persuade consumer brains to make the ‘buy’ decision in your stores




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Grocery retailers: how to persuade consumer brains to make the ‘buy’ decision in your stores

Dr. Brynn Winegard

  • 3 January 2017

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.


If you missed it, please read the first article in this series, which considered overall retail atmospherics and fundamental social cognitive neuroscience (SCN) to help shoppers make the ‘buy’ decision for farm produce in your grocery store.

Want bigger ‘basket-sizes’? Make bigger baskets

Like silence, people in high-pressure, socialized environments are uncomfortable with white space and often feel the need to ‘fill it up’. In this case, think of the cart or basket as the void in people’s emotional lives—the subconscious brain plays a role in telling them to ‘fill it up’ before they leave the resource-haven that is your store. 

Evidence shows larger baskets translates into larger transactions.

Of course, for consumers trying to keep a budget this can be a real problem because average basket sizes in the grocery category in North America have increased threefold since the 1970s, while average incomes have not. However, as retailers, if you’re looking for bigger basket-size metrics, the answer is simple: give shoppers bigger baskets.

Court convenience shoppers

Have an easy-access ‘Grab & Go’, pre-made section. Pre-made foods and ‘grab and go’ products are high-margin, high-turnover, and ready-to-eat. They should be in an area that is easily accessed for both shoppers who have spent an entire shopping trip in the store, as well as convenience shoppers who intend only to drop in for these items.

In order to maximize revenues, these types of products should be paired with impulse purchase and POS categories (chips, chocolate, beverages, convenience, fast-moving consumer goods [FMCG], confectionary) for hungry convenience shoppers looking to rush in and out.

Convenience shoppers are typically (and pleasingly) price-insensitive and will both pay more for products made more convenient to them as well as engage in high levels of impulse purchase behaviour—pairing products as suggested complements to one another works well for persuading convenience shoppers to purchase.

Give and ye shall receive

Humans are instinctively reciprocal because they are a social species. In order not to be ostracized or excluded in future iterations of good will toward them, if you do someone a favour, they will feel as though they ‘owe you one’; if you give them something for free, their emotional brain will remind them that they are indebted to you.

This has many logical and simple uses in a retail space, especially in the grocery category, for persuading shoppers to make the ‘buy decision’:

Always offer samples of items you’re looking to move. Use of the reciprocity principle is obvious in every Costco you’ve ever visited: offer consumers something to try and they will reciprocate with increased sales of that item. Samples instigate a reciprocity effect that increases purchase intention on the part of shoppers. Sampling has the added benefit of satiating shoppers’ visceral needs (e.g. hunger, thirst, fatigue) for a short while and keeping them in stores longer (and people who stay in stores longer spend more money). Further, samples give shoppers proof of product quality, which increases overall purchase intent—this is especially valuable in categories where there is little knowledge, new offerings, skepticism, or doubt for any reason.

Have a greeter at the front who offers shoppers something physical at the beginning of their shopping journey. Use of the reciprocity principle is at work even in almost every Wal-Mart: greeters at the front door hand you a flyer or coupon (something of value to you, presumably), and this has been shown to elicit reciprocity from shoppers—those handed something at the outset of their trip will reciprocate by buying more. Other examples could include handouts, postcards, water, free samples, a beverage, etc. The higher the value of the total basket (e.g. Longo’s versus No Frills), the higher the value the initial offering should be in order to have any effect on purchase intent.

Right-handed, right?

Because 90% of the human population is right-handed, it’s no surprise that 90% of shoppers turn right automatically when they enter a store (or any foreign space): 90% of the time they aren’t just right-handed, but right-eyed, right-legged, right-coordinated, right-side dominant, right-oriented. Catering to a consumer’s right side means they feel greater cognitive fluency, physical ease, and will more easily shop with the subconscious throughout their shopping journey.

Gear the retail space to right-handed people. Place things in order that a right-dominant person can easily grab them with their right hand. Order the merchandise assuming a person is moving around the store using their right-dominant hand and side—this will increase the cognitive perception that the store is logically laid out and easy to manoeuvre, which ultimately will persuade the subconscious brain not just to buy, but to keep coming back.

A good example of this principle combined with the priming-anchoring-conditioning principles discussed in article one of this series: place most expensive and new items at the front right of a store and staple SKUs/products as well as sale items near the back of any store. This will guide shoppers to make their way through at least 50% of the store and other merchandise before they have reached the category they came for (increasing the likelihood of filling their basket), but also will allow them to see more expensive merchandise first and consider both the staple and sale items particularly well-priced in comparison (which of course, increases likelihood of incremental purchases).

Make selection easy

You’ve heard of ‘the choice paradox’ and ‘analysis paralysis’—ultimately the human brain is lazy and looking for shortcuts, and we have to do whatever we can to make selecting a product and successfully purchasing it as easy as possible for shoppers. That’s the first step in persuading the brain to buy something.

Don’t shelve products—place them. Every product should be strategically placed in a store to maximize shopper, utility, value, and interest, as well as sales and revenues, ultimately. Ideally, products need to be at eye-level with your target market—e.g. at 5’4 inches for adults, at 3’ for kids. Highest-traffic shelving around the perimeter of the store should have staples, essentials, med-high-margin, and highest turnover products, while dead-zone center aisles should have highest-margin, lowest-involvement (e.g. paper products, cleaning supplies, pet foods) categories.

Make sure everything is within reach, that nothing is too high or too low (tisk tisk Costco), too far away (tisk tisk Wal-Mart SuperCentres), or too chaotic (tisk tisk Winners) so that products are easy to see, consider, pick up, try, test, smell, etc. This will dramatically increase chances of being in your shopper’s choice-set, which is part of the battle toward persuading the brain to make the buy decision.

Power of ‘sales people’

It isn’t just important for employees to wear uniforms, comply with health and safety standards, comply with organizational rules, demonstrate customer service, demonstrate a sense of respect toward employer and position in the organization, and be well-groomed.

It is also important that staff realize the direct impact they have on sales. Because the human brain is a fundamentally socially engineered computer, the salespeople in the grocery retail environment impact sales preferentially—sometimes just by being there!

Research shows that both hospitable and snooty ‘sales people’ (something all employees should feel as though they are), increases sales---for different reasons, people buy more in both scenarios. Further, just the presence of other people and salespeople increases purchase intentions because of social pressure and pleasing instincts—so invest in your people!

Increased ‘sales staff’ also increases the likelihood that shoppers will find what they came looking for and feel pleased with the shopping experience, which in turn will increase basket-size, sales, satisfaction, and repeat-shopping.  

Put the scarcity principle to work

Research shows that limiting supply of items (‘maximum 5 per customer’), even if there is no change to pricing, drives scarcity considerations and actually serves to increase demand for products.

The human brain is hard-wired to value and seek scarce resources, so instilling a sense of scarcity is one positive step toward persuading the brain to make the buy decision.  

Indicating a limit in quantity per customer is likely to increase overall demand, as will suggesting quantity-based value, even if no discount is actually to be realized (e.g. ’10 for $10’).

Make your signage sing 

Signage is extremely important when it comes to persuading the brain to make the buy decision. While there is a bulk of nearly endless research on this topic, the brain-relevant basics are the following:

o   Use printed, not cursive words

o   Use sans-serif fonts for maximum attention, cognitive ease, comprehension (serif fonts are harder for the brain to process)

o   Drop the dollar sign—it reminds the brain of the pain of paying (and yes, the brain processes paying in the same centres as it does physical pain perception)

o   Use primary colours wherever possible instead of pastels, shades, gradients, outlines, etc.—these are easiest for the brain to process and make comprehension, selection-set, and path-to-purchase that much easier

§  Within the subset of primary colours, yellow, red, white, black, and orange are processed by the visual cortices in the brain first and have a high contrast effect against other colours—allowing potential for greater attention, comprehension, interest, purchase ultimately, especially in POS areas of the store.


Please return next month for part three of three in this series: “Seedling-to-Satisfaction: Pleasing Brains Making the ‘Buy’ Decision in Your Store [So They Do So Repeatedly].” 


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