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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Healthy snacks at the checkout counter: A lab and field study on the impact of shelf arrangement and assortment structure on consumer choices

Ellen van Kleef*, Kai Otten and Hans CM van Trijp

Author Affiliations

Wageningen University, Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Group, Hollandseweg 1, Wageningen, The Netherlands

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:1072  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-1072

Published: 12 December 2012

Abstract

Background

The essence of nudging is to adapt the environment in which consumers make decisions to help them make better choices, without forcing certain outcomes upon them. To determine how consumers can effectively be guided to select healthier snacks, we examine the effect of manipulating the assortment structure and shelf layout of an impulse display including both healthy and unhealthy snacks near the checkout counter of a canteen.

Methods

Both a lab and field study applied a two-factor experimental design manipulating snack offerings both in an on-screen choice environment and a natural environment (hospital staff restaurant). Shelf arrangement (i.e. accessibility) was altered by putting healthy snacks at higher shelves versus lower shelves. Assortment structure (i.e. availability) was altered by offering an assortment that either included 25% or 75% healthy snacks. Participants in the lab study (nā€‰=ā€‰158) made a choice from a shelf display. A brief survey following snack selection asked participants to evaluate the assortment and their choice. The field experiment took place in a hospital canteen. Daily sales data were collected for a period of four weeks. On completion of the field study, employees (nā€‰=ā€‰92) filled out a questionnaire about all four displays and rated their attractiveness, healthiness and perceived freedom of choice.

Results

The lab study showed a higher probability of healthy snack choice when 75% of the assortment consisted of healthy snacks compared to conditions with 25% healthy snack assortments, even though choices were not rated less satisfying or more restrictive. Regarding shelf display location of healthy snacks, no significant differences were observed. There was also no significant shelf arrangement by assortment structure interactive effect. The field study replicated these findings, in that this assortment structure led to higher sales of healthy snacks. Sales of unhealthy and total snacks were not impacted by manipulations (no main or interaction effects). Employees preferred shelf displays including a larger healthy snack assortment located at top shelves. Employees also felt more freedom in choice when healthy snacks were displayed at top shelves compared to lower shelves.

Conclusions

Overall, results suggest that increasing the prominence of healthy snacks by enlarging their availability, while permitting access to unhealthy snacks, is a promising strategy to promote sales. These results point to the importance of nudging strategies to encourage healthier snack patterns.

Keywords:
Nudging; Obesity prevention; Environmental interventions; Snacking; Food accessibility; Food availability; Choice architecture