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Supermarkets, Spending, and Influences on Choice

Something of a twitter storm erupted last week over a poster placed in a supermarket window. The poster, placed in a branch of Sainsbury’s, issued a “50p Challenge”, urging employees to encourage every customer to “spend an additional 50p during each shopping trip between now and the years-end”. After a passer-by named Chris Dodd took a photo of the poster and posted it on twitter, a Sainsbury’s representative confirmed that the poster was intended only for employees and that it was not intended for public display. See a news report here. The picture has since gone viral, and attracted the ire of social media commentators. Mr. Dodd himself told the Daily Telegraph Newspaper:


As a customer, I don’t want to feel like I’m being forced or tricked into spending extra by staff who have been challenged to make me do so. Had the poster encouraged better customer service, or more effective promotions, I doubt there would have been this kind of reaction


In the above quotation, Dodd seems to capture what lies behind much of the online disapprobation of the poster. However, whilst this is undoubtedly an embarrassing episode for Sainsbury’s, is it really worthy of our moral indignation?

If it is, then it seems that such indignation can only be part of a much bigger story. Consumers are influenced to spend more money in supermarkets (and various other establishments) in a wide variety of ways. Of course, as Dodd intimates above, not all of these influences seem morally problematic; for instance, he points out that there would not have been such moral outrage over the poster if it had encouraged better promotions. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that we do not feel ‘forced or tricked’ into spending extra money by promotions because we feel that we are making our decision about whether to make a purchase in conscious awareness of the relevant facts (is the promotional product something I want? Is it a good price?); as such, we believe that we can make a rational decision with respect to whether we should take advantage of a promotional offer. In contrast, we might worry that employee encouragement would subvert our ability to make this sort of rational deliberation in some way.

Yet, if we believe that being encouraged to spend more money by an employee would involve force or trickery, then it seems that we should equally object to a number of other of measures that retailers can use to influence our choices at a sub-rational level. Prior to explaining this, I should make it clear that I am not claiming that Sainsbury’s in particular employs any of the strategies that I outline below. My point is rather one regarding the consistency of our moral judgement concerning other practices that certain retailers may employ.

Research has shown that supermarkets use a number of tactics to get consumers to spend more money that work at a sub-rational level. Such tactics have been explored in some detail in the literature on behavioural economics, and on various business blogs (see here and here). To mention a few salient examples from a literature review by Turley and Milliman carried out in 2000,[1] various studies have shown that the manipulation of the following four variables (amongst others) can all lead to either a direct increase in sales, or an increase in the amount of time that customers spend in a store, which in turn makes more sales likely:


1)    Shop interior variables – including flooring, lighting, scents and sounds, temperature, cleanliness, wall textures, and colour usage.


2)    The layout of the store – for instance, placing everyday items at the back of the store, so that customers have to pass tempting offers in order to get to the things they often need such as milk and bread.


3)    Point of purchase displays – the way in which goods are displayed and the amount of shelf space they are given can influence buying behaviour. Customers are also more likely to make impulse buys at the till since they are more likely to have exhausted their supplies of will-power whilst walking around the store.


Since the influence that the manipulation of these variables can exert on our choices seems to work at a sub-rational level, it seems that they involve an element of trickery that we might find morally problematic. Interestingly, governments have begun to harness these sorts of influences for public health ends rather than commercial ones; for instance, it is now common to find healthy foods at supermarkets tills rather than sugary snacks. It would have been interesting to see if there would have been any moral indignation if Sainsbury’s had leaked a poster urging employers to get shoppers to buy healthier foods; I suspect not. This suggests that at least part of people’s moral indignation about the Sainsbury’s poster is down to the fact that it urged employees to attempt to change customer behaviour for the business’ benefit, rather than the consumer’s.

If we believe that there is something wrong with Sainsbury’s urging employees to get customers to spend more money, then it seems that we should also object to the myriad ways in which retailers may influence our choices at a sub-rational level. In fact, it seems that one could make the case that being encouraged to spend more by an employee is likely to be less morally problematic than other methods that supermarkets could use. After all, it seems plausible to suggest that employees would be more likely to encourage customers to spend more money in a manner that engages the customer as a rational agent; for instance, an employee could encourage a shopper to spend more by informing them of the virtues of a slightly more expensive version of some product over a cheaper alternative. Or, in light of Dodd’s comment above, employees might tell shoppers about promotional offers that they might be interested in. Whilst we might regret the fact that these sorts of encouragement would be rooted in the establishment’s desire to make money rather than out of a concern for the customer herself, this should surely not surprise us – supermarkets are businesses after all – and at least the forms of verbal encouragement that employees could engage in considered above have the virtue of not working at a sub-rational level.

[1] L. W Turley and Ronald E Milliman, “Atmospheric Effects on Shopping Behavior: A Review of the Experimental Evidence,” Journal of Business Research 49, no. 2 (August 2000): 193–211.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting post. A few points of disagreement:

    Mr. Dodd’s take, it seems to me, is explicitly non-moral. He refers to what he wants as a customer, rather than what is necessarily right or wrong.

    However, if we do suppose there is a moral problem here, I think Mr. Dodd’s explanation is exactly right. The problem isn’t, per se, a company trying to induce us to consume. We’re used to and expect that, perhaps even desire it to some extent, and we recognize that it happens on both rational and sub-rational levels. What Mr. Dodd objects to is a new relationship with supermarket staff being proposed by Sainsbury’s.

    Some employees are there to help us out, and some are there to make a commission. Car sales staff are universally distrusted because we all know that they’re just trying to make as much money off of us as they can. These kinds of interactions are not necessarily objectionable, but they’re certainly not the most desirable kind of relationship to stand in with another human being.

    When I ask a supermarket attendant where something is in the store, I don’t want their answer to be influenced by their attempts to squeeze more money out of me. I think grocery shopping (and working in a grocery store) would be significantly less pleasant if this was the kind of relationship I had with the staff, of the same reason I don’t like shopping for cars. Sainsbury’s attempt to alter these norms, it seems to me, is what people find objectionable.

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