Tempting treats placed right near the cash register are literally eye candy, deliberately displayed so they'll catch your attention when you're waiting on the checkout line. Tossing those high-calorie, low-nutrition vices into the cart is something consumers tend to do without thinking, even when they know deep down it's against their best interests.
Dr. Deborah A. Cohen, a senior natural scientist at Rand Health, says people are susceptible to spontaneous bad-for-your-health buys because of a struggle within the brain. She has co-written a commentary about food marketing and the obesity epidemic in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
"Our brain has both automatic and deliberate thoughts, a fast and slow way of thinking," Cohen said. "We are wired to act first and think later, so we grab a delicious food without stopping to consider the consequences."
People have the ability to make only so many choices per day, Cohen also said. Marketers know this, which is why they place high-profit grab items like candy and soda at the end of the shopping experience when a shopper's decision-making capacity is shot.
"This is the most likely moment when consumers can't avoid the junk food and can't resist it either," Cohen said.
The trick seems to work. Nine out of 10 shoppers make impulse purchases, buying items that weren't on their shopping lists, according to a recent survey by The Checkout, an ongoing shopper behavior study conducted by The Integer Group, a retail branding firm. And, as another survey by the retail analyst group IHL found, there's a good chance all this mindless, spur-of-the-moment buying translates into excess pounds.
According to the 2008 IHL analysis, the average American woman eats more than 14,300 calories a year in impulse purchases alone; women could lose 4.1 lbs a year -- at least theoretically -- by simply resisting checkout candy bars and chocolate candies, chips, and soda once they are in the checkout line. Men fare even worse: they buy fewer but higher calorie items for a whopping 28,350 total calories worth of impulse buys per year on average.
Checkout lines aren't the only places retailers use to steer consumers toward high-profit food items they don't really want, don't really need and never intended to buy, Cohen said. Goods placed in prominent end-of-aisle locations account for about 30 percent of all supermarket sales and can increase the sale of an individual item fivefold.
Vendors pay "slotting fees" to retailers to guarantee their products will be placed in prime locations. In many cases, Cohen said, these fees will net stores more profit than consumer spending.
Additionally, marketers pretest promotional displays to make them influential and hard to resist. They frequently use sophisticated eye-tracking systems to make sure that customers cannot ignore them. People lack the capacity to control their eye gaze fully, and what they look at the longest is the strongest predictor of what they will buy. Purchasing decisions are often made subconsciously in less than a second -- and the choice to buy foods high in fat and sugar are made more quickly than the choice to buy healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Emily Dhurandhar, an obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said retailers carefully manipulate pricing as well. "It's well known that higher prices reduce consumption. Marketers know that even strategic, short-term sales promotions can lead to long-term increases in consumption of a particular food," she said.
Cornell University studies also show that consumers who pay with plastic tend to throw caution to the wind. When they use credit and debit cards versus cash, they buy a larger proportion of food items rated as impulsive and unhealthy.
"Cash helps you feel the pain of spending and anticipate the regret from impulsive consumption," said Manoj Thomas, the lead author on the Cornell studies and director of the University's business simulation laboratory. "That alone seems to help hold back from consumption."
And, although impulse marketing is something that's used right under our noses, Cohen said she thinks we should consider treating it as a hidden risk factor for diet-related chronic diseases, like carcinogens in water, because it affects our food choices in ways that are automatic and out of our conscious control. They could well be contributing to the obesity epidemic that has left more than two thirds of Americans overweight or obese.
"We often talk about personal responsibility but we need to stop putting all the onus on individuals who are naturally influenced by their environment and born to overeat when there is too much food available," she said. "It becomes a barrier to good health when we undermine people by asking them to say no at every step."