A Moment of Science

The Supermarket Numbers Game

Dr. Brian Wansink of the University of Illinois Food & Brand Lab studied how people make decisions in stores.

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Photo: MelvinSchlubman (flickr)

One way stores increase sales is that standby of merchandising, the multiple unit price.

Have you ever gone to the store just for milk, but walked out with eight sale-priced cans of something you’d never tasted and eight candy bars? How does that happen?

Dr. Brian Wansink of the University of Illinois Food & Brand Lab studied how people make decisions in stores. The results are interesting not only for merchandisers hoping to increase sales, but customers trying to resist the temptation.

One way stores increase sales is that standby of merchandising, the multiple unit price. That’s when a sign lists the price for several items, instead of one, say, 4 cans for $4. Of course, you could buy one, but it’s hard to resist the suggestion to buy more. Wansink found that multiple unit pricing increased sales by almost a third.

Here’s an even more astounding technique. When Wansink put up a sign that said, “Buy Snickers Bars for your Freezer,” people tended to buy one. Next though, he changed the sign to read, “Buy 18 Snickers Bars for Your Freezer.” It probably sounded ridiculous to customers too, but they tripled their purchases to three candy bars, on average.

The limit sign is another trick of the numbers that increases sales, even though stores usually intend it to do just the opposite. Let’s say soup is marked way down, to bring in customers. The addition of a sign limiting purchase to 12 cans had a dramatic effect in Wansink’s study, increasing sales by 112%!

To resist the power of supermarket suggestion, write a grocery list at home, including how much you need. At the store, remember how the numbers games work!

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