Supermarkets play an important role in the modern food supply chain. In this highly competitive market, stores use layouts and shelf strategies to increase sales and maximise profit. The amount of waste over-shopping creates poses an implication for disadvantaged people suffering from food insecurity. The USDA (2017) defines food insecurity as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” While some families struggle to put food on the table, others are throwing it away daily.

Marketing research suggests that in-store stimuli such as shelf allocation and product display, have immense influence on consumer buying behaviour and may substantially increase demand. But this intensive marketing strategy carries implications and may not be win-win situation after all, especially for food security.

Figure 1

“Two thirds of what we buy in the supermarket we had no intention of buying” states consumer expert Paco Underhill (2009). Supermarkets depend on this kind of behaviour and they plan their layouts in a way that encourages this. Every corner of a shop’s layout has been designed to stimulate shopping serendipity and make you spend more.



Product to Shelf Placement

The strategy ‘Product to shelf placement’ is a key marketing ploy to increase the financial performance of stores. Supermarkets and managers have the power to choose which products have the greatest value to customers and where they have to be placed to maximise the supermarket’s total profit. An aesthetically pleasing display of products will not only attract the attention of the customers but will also increase consumption and consumer satisfaction (Aloysius and Binu, 2012).

As you enter the supermarket, your senses come under assault. You will often find fresh produce by the entrance. The vibrant colours and the fresh scent are meant to put you in a good mood, the happier you are the more money you are likely to spend. You will slowly then drift towards the bakery corner that gets your salivary glands going and will make you feel hungrier. The hungrier you are, the more food you will buy. Dairy products, eggs, meat and other essentials tend to be along the back wall of a supermarket, because they are perishable essentials people buy more frequently. By the time you make your way all the way down there, you will be exposed to other products along the way, making you more susceptible to impulse buys. General merchandise and canned goods are placed in the centre aisles, drawing customers deeper into the depths of the supermarket and encouraging them to buy other things they do not need. All the sugary things are of course near the exit. According to Underhill, this is the most profitable area of the shop as it turns waiting time into buying time. And you really do deserve that chocolate bar after all that heavy shopping! Simeon Scamell-Katz, a leading global consumer analyst and the author of The Art of Shopping says “Shopping is so ritualised that we walk around like zombies”.

However, Scamell-Katz’s research shows these distraction tactics can be fraught because shoppers arrive at a store with a mission from which they are reluctant to be diverted. Forcing them to walk further for a pint of milk can engender bad feelings.

Figure 2: Positioning of products in the supermarket (The Independent).

Shelf Space

Supermarkets decrease their costs by shelf space management. There are 4 shelf positions according to academics: top shelf, the grab shelf or the bulls-eye zone, the kids’ level shelf and the bottom shelf. The top shelf consists of smaller and regional brands that give the shelf ‘tone and texture’. This shelf helps the supermarket stand out from its competitors. The bulls-eye zone are the middle shelves where you will always find best-sellers and leading brands. These will always be the most expensive products the supermarket will hope to benefit from. The kids’ shelf will be at eye-level of most children and will have products with kid appeal. The bottom shelf is the student favourite. This shelf is home to the cheapest products, usually store brands or bulky items.

Figure 3: Product shelf placing (Repsly).


This is all fine and dandy for the supermarket, but many do not stop to think these issues contribute to over-shopping, food waste and food security. In many cases, our impulse buys and our bulk purchases end up going in the bin. US consumers waste around 40% of food thanks to over-shopping (NHPR, 2016) while Brits bin a shocking £15 billion worth of food every year (Ideal Home, 2013). Not only do we spend money on things we do not need, but we also spend money on things that go to waste. This is a huge threat to food security.

If supermarkets stop encouraging people to buy unnecessary food, food waste could be reduced. Supermarket profits will decrease, but the reduced demand in food will cutback food production. Land and water that are usually diverted to food production for the wealthy can be used to cultivate food for people in food insecurity. The UN estimated that the global population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and food production needs to increase 70% to meet global demands. Supermarkets can help reduce food waste by not ‘forcing’ people to buy unnecessary products, especially in bulk. A study by In-Store Media about the habits of consumers shows that 70% of purchasing decisions are made during shopping. This indicates that stores can change consumer behaviour and purchasing habits through marketing.

Ironically, a shop whose purpose is to provide food/solve hunger, may in fact be contributing to food insecurity all around the world in the long term by prioritising economic gain. It is important for the whole food supply system (production, packaging, distribution, and marketing) to take a step back. The modern food system is unsustainable. Even though supermarkets alone will not solve food insecurity, in order to sustain life in 2050 we need to begin somewhere. Supermarkets changing their manipulative marketing strategies is a good place to start.