Shopping With a Mirror and Other Crazy New Healthy Food Tips

What does it take to get shoppers to eat organic, local vegetables? Would you believe that it might be as simple as some yellow tape, a mirror or a list of a store’s best-selling produce? Most Americans haven’t been responding to more in-your-face healthy food tips, so researchers in New Mexico are trying out gentler tactics in the hope of convincing people to add more fruits and veggies to their grocery carts. The plan might sound pretty crazy, but the truly bizarre thing is that it actually seems to work.

Most Healthy Food Tips Come On Too Strong

The benefits of a diet rich in fruits and veggies are well-known – it’s no secret that you can lose weight, lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and keep cancer at bay when you eat organic, wholesome produce more often. But this common knowledge doesn’t seem to make a dent in the poor eating habits of the average American. As a matter of fact, over 90% of Americans aren’t meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary recommendations for fruits and veggies.

Why haven’t we all given up the cheesy corn snacks and double chocolate chip cookies in favor of broccoli and orange slices by now? When the government bombards consumers with healthy food tips, very little happens. The information is often ignored, and the facts that do make it to shoppers often come across as meddlesome or preachy. Nobody likes to be scolded as they fill their shopping cart, after all. As for the programs that do work well, such as vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, infants and Children (WIC), funding frequently comes under fire during budget negotiations.

Can Redesigned Shopping Carts Convince Us to Eat Organic Foods?

Collin R. Payne and Mihai Niculescu think we can do a better job of getting shoppers to buy local vegetables – and taxpayers won’t have to pay a dime. These social scientists from New Mexico State University have been running a series of experiments in a regional grocery chain. Their goal? Finding healthy food tips producenovel (and subtle) ways to convince people to reach for more fruits and veggies.

They’ve seen some interesting results so far. When market floors are emblazoned with giant arrows that point toward the produce section, a great many shoppers actually go that way. But the most dramatic changes have come from small design changes to the shopping carts.

In one test, a mirror was placed in the far end of the cart (and pointing slightly upwards) so that shoppers would see themselves when they looked into their cart. Another experiment used yellow duct tape to mark off zones in the cart, with instructions explaining that the front half of the cart should be used for produce only. The researchers also put informative placards in carts, telling shoppers how much produce other customers were buying and pointing out the most popular items.

These experiments rely on a principle called nudge marketing, in which a moderate amount of pressure is used to convince consumers to pick up a product. Too much pressure (think imperious government brochures) and shoppers recognize the pitch and resist it. When there’s not enough pressure, on the other hand, the marketing is ignored. Payne and Niculescu are using implied social norms (via the sign with popular fruits and veggies) and a shopper’s self-critical glance in the mirror to convince them to buy local vegetables and fruits when they might otherwise pick up potato chips or candy bars.

So just how effective are these nudges? The yellow tape experiment increased the average amount of produce that each shopper purchased from $3.99 to $8.85. The placards raised produce sales 10 percent and nearly doubled the produce bought by WIC participants. Not bad, and totally free of any condescending pamphlets packed with healthy food tips. Payne and Niculescu are still fine-tuning the mirror experiment, too – they’re aiming to run formal trials later this year, but they’re hopeful that the results will be just as positive as with the other nudge marketing tools.

If you’re a little concerned about using tricks or taking advantage of a shopper’s negative self-image in order to get them to eat healthier, don’t forget that the processed food industry relies on some pretty powerful marketing tools to sell consumers unhealthy snacks. In fact, they’re masters at the game. They have no reservations about buying prime display space in grocery stores or using high-pressure advertising to sell sugary cereal or TV dinners loaded with fat. If Americans are in thrall to junk food marketing – and we pretty clearly are – then the time for nudge marketing has come. If we want to make the fight fair, in fact, it’s just what we need.

How do you feel about using social pressure to sell shoppers more fruits and veggies? Do the ends justify the means here, or do you think we should just stick with government-sponsored healthy food tips and junk food taxes?