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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Baynham

Why do we shop the way we do?

Updated: Aug 12, 2019


I find myself to be an atypical grocery shopper. I usually visit the grocery store at least 2-3 times a week as it is on my way home from work making it a convenient stop. When I shop, I take the time to look at new products and interesting labels. As I shop more frequently, my visits tend to be short, making this an easier proposition. I also don’t use a list when shopping, deciding on that night’s meal in the store. I recognize this may be unusual and makes me curious as to how other people shop and what they consider when purchasing food.

Being a food researcher, I often find myself engaged in discussions about why people choose the food they do. I have friends who follow various diets from a vegetarian, to an organic shopper and another friend who only purchases items that are on sale. From my observations, the vegetarian considers information on each product he purchases the most. The organic consumer typically purchases items based on taste and quality indicators such as “grass-fed” or products with “no artificial colours”. The third seems to be strictly motivated by price and willing to compromise taste, among other things, as long as it’s a good bargain. Understanding the factors that motivate these decisions can be difficult.

A short aisle in the mock grocery store with dry goods on the shelves.
The Longo's Food Retail Lab was designed to resemble an actual Longo's grocery store.

Currently, I am a researcher at the University of Guelph in the Longo's Food Lab. The food lab is set up as a typical grocery with some notable exceptions. There is no bread area, fish or meat counter as the perishability creates a bit of a logistical headache. We use the grocery store setup to run experiments with eye-tracking glasses in order to better understand how people interact with product information as they shop. It gives us a realistic environment that we have a bit more control over than an actual grocery store.

People quite often make decisions based on factors outside of their control, whether or not they realize it. For example a shorter woman who participated in a recent grocery store experiment explained that she looks only at products that are at or below eye level. In contrast, anyone who knows Mike von Massow knows that one of his defining features is his height (he is quite tall). He often misses options that are on the bottom shelves as a result.

He has even had to reorganize his fridge to better accommodate his height, opting for a model with a freezer on the bottom. This allows fridge items that are more commonly used to be closer to eye level for him.

These small factors dictate to a degree what options are perceived to be available. A consumer will only spend so long looking for a product that they want to purchase. The same is true for the information available on products.

Sometimes it comes down to functional differences within the packaging. Another study participant explained why they made a few specific purchasing decisions. When it came to honey, they said the dispenser was the main factor in their choice. It was the only honey with a dispenser that they thought would not clog up. These functional differences are not as easy to identify and can make or break a consumer's decision to purchase one product over another.

A lot of the research I have been involved with has focused on the impact of labels and if they are used by consumers to make their purchasing decisions. Most people only use a fraction of the information available on a product to actually make a decision. This can be due to a variety of reasons, but the overarching factor seems to be that people buy products that are familiar. Often people recognize certain products or brands that meet their health or dietary requirements and therefore don't need to consult the information on the packages as much. Other products are just the ones they have always bought, like the taste of and don’t see the use in risking the switch to a different brand.

Certainly, this is not that no one uses labels or packaging information. Moreover, very few people tend to consistently look at the ingredients or nutrition information. In my experiences, the labels that do make an impact are well known and have a recognizable symbol or logo somewhere on the package. Labels such as organic or non-GMO tend to impact the consumer because people know what it represents and can easily identify it. On the other hand, things like nutrition information rarely get used because of the volume of information presented. I imagine most consumers think they have a rough idea of the information contained on a nutrition label and don't want to take the time to read it.

Simplifying this message could go a long way to incorporating this information into more people’s decisions. Easing the burden to access the information by reducing the time to read it could allow for it to be more widely used.


Recommended citation format: Baynham, A. “Why do we shop the way we do?”. Food Focus Guelph (21), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, April 15th, 2019.


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