Alcohol at end of aisles linked to 'boosted sales'

Behind the Headlines

Monday March 17 2014

Most supermarket chains employ psychological techniques to improve sales of selected goods

Fizzy drinks and alcohol sold more if displayed at the end of aisles

“Putting alcohol and fizzy drinks at the end of supermarket aisles does make us buy more,” the Mail Online reports.

Researchers studying buying patterns in an English supermarket found that placing products on the ends of aisles was associated with increased sales.

There has long been anecdotal evidence that the placing of certain goods at certain positions in supermarkets can boost sales, but little in the way of publically available observation data that this is the case.

The study in question looked at sales results in one (unnamed) UK supermarket over a year and how location of specific goods affected sales figures.

The results suggest that end-of-aisle displays were associated with a large positive impact on sales of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

An obvious limitation with this study is that it took data from one place at one point in time. Whether results would be applicable to other areas of the country is unclear.

The researchers raise the possibility that the government could introduce regulations about the display of “high-risk” goods; similar to the strict regulations about the display of tobacco products. And this could then “nudge” people into healthier behaviour and help combat the country’s alcohol misuse and obesity problems.

It’s certainly an interesting idea but it will probably take a great deal more evidence before politicians and policy makers are convinced.

 

The science of shopping

Most supermarket chains employ psychological techniques to improve sales of selected goods. These include:

  • placing goods with the highest profit-margin below eye level as this is the “grab level” – goods at this level are easiest to pick up
  • clustering own-brand goods next to goods with a prestige brand – customers will then associate the same prestige with the own-brand alternative, so won’t feel that they are choosing an inferior option when they opt for the own-brand
  • place impulse buys, such as sweets and chocolates, in areas where customers have to queue
  • put essential goods such as milk and bread at the back of the store, so the customer has to walk through, making them more likely to notice something else they want to buy

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Cambridge, the University of East Anglia, and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Human Nutrition Research, Cambridge. It was funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science and Medicine. This article is open-access meaning that it can be accessed free of charge from the publisher's website.

The results of the research were well covered by the Mail Online, however, claims “supermarkets could be banned from putting alcohol and fizzy drinks in these premium locations in a bid to reduce consumption” is jumping the gun a little.

Recommendations made by researchers are a long way from becoming government policy.

Also, the study, due to the limited evidence at hand, cannot answer the Mail’s question “could moving them (high-risk goods) reduce obesity?” in any substantive fashion.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was an observational study that aimed to determine the effect of end-of-aisle display on sales, focusing on alcohol.

The researchers controlled for a number of confounding factors including price and price promotions. Though there could be other unaccounted for factors influencing the sale of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

An experimental study, where location of drinks is the only variable factor, is required to truly determine the effect of the location of items within a supermarket on sales.

 

What did the research involve?

In this study, researchers looked at the effect of end-of aisle display on the sale of three types of alcohol (beer, wine, and spirits) and three non-alcoholic beverages (both sugar- and artificially- sweetened carbonated drinks, coffee and tea).

The researchers collected information on the layout of one UK supermarket (the name of the supermarket was not mentioned in the study), and on the sale of these alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks during one year (2010-2011).

The researchers looked to see if there was an effect of end-of aisle display on sales, after controlling for price, price promotion and the number of display locations for each product.   

 

What were the basic results?

For all categories, the number of items sold and the total volume purchased were higher when products were displayed on aisle ends. Items purchased from aisle ends were generally cheaper in terms of price per volume (cost per litre or kg) than items purchased from other parts of the supermarket (except for coffee), although price per pack was higher (except for wine).

After controlling for price, price promotion and the number of display locations for each product, end-of-aisle display was associated with increased sale volumes of all three types of alcohol. Sales of:

  • beer increased by 23.3%
  • wine increased by 33.6%
  • spirits increased by 46.1%

End-of-aisle display was also associated with increased volume of sales of non-alcoholic beverages. Sales of:

  • carbonated drinks increased by 51.7%
  • coffee increased by 73.5%
  • tea increased by 113.8%

The researchers calculated that positioning the items at the end-of-aisles was associated with the same effect on sales as decreasing the price of alcohol by between 4% and 9% per volume (equivalent to £0.17 to £1.17 off an average product) and of decreasing the price of non-alcoholic drinks by between 22% and 62% per volume (equivalent to £0.27 to £1.19 off an average product).

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that “end-of-aisle displays appear to have a large impact on sales of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages. Restricting the use of aisle ends for alcohol and other less healthy products might be a promising option to encourage healthier in-store purchases, without affecting availability or cost of products.”

 

Conclusion

This study from one UK supermarket has found that end-of-aisle displays are associated with a large impact on sales of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages.

The effect on sales of non-alcoholic beverages seemed to be greater, but the researchers note that non-alcoholic products could have been placed on aisle ends that were passed by more trolleys.

Also, other prime locations which are frequently used for alcoholic beverages, such as entrance and check-out displays, were not considered in the current study.

Whether restricting where certain products can be placed in supermarkets could have an effect on obesity remains to be seen. Importantly, the current study has a number of limitations that the researchers acknowledge:

  • It did not take into account the potential effect of substitution between items or substitution between product categories. For example, it did not examine the effect on sales of other alcoholic drinks when sales of one particular product increased.
  • It did not take into account other factors that can influence purchasing decisions such as advertising/marketing.
  • It analysed one UK supermarket. Further studies will be required to see whether the results are generalizable.

The researchers do raise an interesting point. Current ideas to reduce the consumption of unhealthy goods such as a “sugar tax” or a minimal unit alcohol price are publically (and so politically) unpopular.

So restricting how these goods are displayed (whether through law or some type of voluntary code) could help “nudge” people into better behaviour; possibly without them even realising it.

However, supporters of this sort of thinking will probably need to gather more evidence to back up their ideas.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Putting alcohol and fizzy drinks at the end of supermarket aisles DOES make us buy more - so could moving them reduce obesity? Mail Online, March 14 2014

Links to the science

Nakamura R, Pechey R, Suchrcke M, et al. Sales impact of displaying alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in end-of-aisle locations: An observational study. Social Science & Medicine. Published online February 22 2014

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