Food and beverage companies spend billions of dollars each year marketing their products to shoppers. You’re probably thinking TV ads. Yes, that’s true — but Big Food’s cash is also well spent in the checkout aisle, where these companies push customers to make last-minute impulse purchases of soda and candy.
We were accustomed to seeing candy at the grocery store, but when we started encountering Ring Pops at Ace Hardware and Airheads at Bed Bath & Beyond, we decided to find out just how widespread food and beverages were at checkout. Over the summer, we conducted a study of checkout aisles across Washington, D.C. We examined thirty different stores’ checkouts to determine what they offered.
Our results show that most stores market food and drinks in their checkout aisles. It was hardly surprising to us to find these products in supermarkets, but we were disappointed to discover that the vast majority of non-food stores — like Old Navy and Best Buy — pushed soda and candy at checkout as well.
The foods and drinks displayed at checkout were full of sugar, fats, and calories, without much positive nutritional value: about 90 percent of the food was unhealthy. Two-thirds of the beverages were soda, energy drinks, and other sugary beverages, which have been shown to directly contribute to the obesity epidemic.
During our research, we also noticed that we — the report’s authors — were ourselves not immune to temptation at checkout. If you had asked us a year ago, we both would have said that we never fell for any junk food marketing tactics at the cash register. But like many — without even realizing it — we found that we too made impulse buys.
Knowing that checkout is a form of marketing, and realizing that the products offered are unhealthy, doesn’t necessarily protect Americans from making impulse purchases. Our willpower is particularly low at the end of a long day, after we’ve run multiple errands, or while we’re focusing on children in tow. Research has shown that even the quality of judicial decisions deteriorates after judges have had to make a series of many decisions. It shouldn’t necessarily be surprising that we don’t make the best choices at the end of a shopping trip, especially after work or when our attention is elsewhere.
Companies know that the mere appearance of food is a powerful form of marketing. That’s why pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores, office supply stores, and even toy stores bombard their customers with junk food and drinks. After spending millennia as hunter-gatherers, humans are hardwired to eat when food is available — a tendency that companies take advantage of and profit from.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Given the high levels of obesity and diseases caused by poor nutrition (think diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers), stores could take it upon themselves to stop encouraging people to buy and consume extra calories that harm their health.
Stores that do not sell food in-store could stop carrying food and beverages at checkout. And grocery stores could set checkout aisle standards that limit calories, saturated fats, sugars, and sodium, and include some real food near the cash register like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Just because unhealthy foods and beverages at checkout have become the norm doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Given how many Americans are harmed by obesity and diet-related diseases, and the high cost to us all, it’s no longer acceptable for companies to push extra calories on customers at checkout.