How to influence healthier buying habits - what a study found

Consumers tend to buy sugary foods on impulse. We don't plan to buy these items, yet we regularly sneak the odd chocolate bar into our trolley while waiting in the checkout line.

However innocent it might seem, this impulse-driven buying of sweet treats is contributing to the growing obesity pandemic in South Africa.

National Nutrition and Obesity Week (9–19 October), with "Good Nutrition for Good Immunity" as its theme, is the perfect time to consider how we can improve our eating habits. 

Fortunately, researchers have found a simple, yet effective way to encourage consumers to buy healthier foods.

Randomised controlled trial

A recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health reveals how the sales of unhealthy foods dropped when promotion and merchandising of these foods were restricted. 

The study involved restricting the promotion and merchandising of foods containing free sugars by 20 stores in a remote part of Australia.

Ten of the stores functioned as a control group and the other ten implemented the "Health Stores 2020" strategy. According to the study, “Free sugars include foods and drinks with added sugars, plus natural sugar in honey, syrups and fruit juices.” 

READ | You're eating more sugar than you think and it will affect your heart

The strategy was designed to target table sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionery, and sweet biscuits.

The modus operandi involved indicating the sugar content of each product by means of floor stickers. Restrictions included reducing space (or “facings”) for beverages in refrigerators and targeted food items on shelves. 

The shelf space normally occupied by these items was to be filled with healthier alternatives or non-food items. Sugary beverages of more than 600ml were not allowed in refrigerators, and were only to be sold unchilled.

The targeted items were also not allowed to be displayed in high traffic areas.

Findings of the study

The study found that these restrictions led to a reduction in the sales of the targeted items.

Carbonated beverages showed the greatest reduction in sales at 13.4%, with confectionery sales dropping by 7.5%.

This reduction sales of these items did not lead to a loss in profit, and a summary of the study confirmed that “business performance was unaffected”. 

READ | More evidence sugary drinks harm women's hearts

Healthier shopping alternatives

Through studies like this, it has become evident that the way certain products are presented in stores has a strong influence on whether we buy them or not.

This clearly means that retailers are able to influence consumers to make healthier buying decisions.

According to the researchers of the study: “Merchandising of food and beverage products is a key factor influencing consumer behaviour, and one that, with appropriate support, can be modified by retailers to positively impact population diet.”

READ | 'I gave up sugar for 14 days and this is what happened'

Image credit: Luis Aguila, Unsplash

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