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This way to better health: Professors want to push your cart toward the produce aisle

Researchers at New Mexico State University are exploring ways to encourage shoppers to use more of their food budgets for fresh fruits and vegetables, and are working with the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to target some of New Mexico?s most nutritionally vulnerable residents.


Researchers in grocery store with basket
NMSU researchers Mihai Niculescu, left, and Collin Payne show one of the grocery cart placards used in their studies of how in-store marketing can be used to influence shoppers to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables. (NMSU photo by Robert Yee)
Detail of basket placard
Placards like this one led to a 10 percent boost in produce sales during one phase of the research. Payne and Niculescu are scaling up the study to include more stores and additional strategies. (NMSU photo by Robert Yee)

Collin Payne and Mihai Niculescu, both College of Business marketing professors and co-directors of NMSU?s Consumer Behavior Laboratory, are using unconventional in-store marketing techniques to influence grocery shoppers to head for the produce section and fill their baskets with more nutritious foods.

The project began more than four years ago with a simple question: What happens if we use proven influencers like social norms ? providing people information about what?s normal and appropriate behavior ? to guide shoppers to produce purchases, instead of packaged, processed foods?

?We started with some work with grocery carts, where we would mark off half the cart and place a placard in the cart asking people to place all fresh fruit and vegetables in the front of the cart and everything else in back,? Payne said. ?On average, grocery stores have more than 45,000 items from which to choose, and most people make lists, but leave about 50 percent of their grocery budget to be exposed to in-store marketing.?

Consumers in that first study more than doubled their fruit and vegetable purchases, without lowering profits for the supermarket, since produce has a higher profit margin than packaged items.

With these results in hand, Payne and Niculescu were able to secure permission from a regional retailer, Pay and Save, which operates the Lowe?s grocery brand, to do in-store research. They also obtained a grant from the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation in El Paso to continue the project and explore additional ideas.

?For example, in a grocery store we went into in El Paso, we put information on a placard that simply states, ?In this store, most shoppers purchase at least five items of produce,?? Payne said. ?Then we gave them all the popular produce items that were usually purchased ? we knew from the literature that it would work, but no one had tried to use it in grocery stores before.?

Payne and Niculescu also designed 6-foot-by-3-foot green arrow floor stickers to point shoppers toward the produce aisle, with messages like ?Follow the green arrow for your health.?

?We saw about a 10 percent jump in produce purchases without actually increasing consumer budgets ? that is, total sales for the grocery stores stayed the same,? Payne said.

Increasing the sales of these perishable foods is of added benefit to grocery stores, because they?re not only making a higher profit margin on these items, they?re also decreasing the number of spoiled items they?re unable to sell.

Pay and Save has agreed to expand the ongoing research project into all 22 stores in the region, and with an additional grant from the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, Payne and Niculescu scaled up the study last year from one store to four ? two in Las Cruces and one each in Alamogordo, N.M., and Tularosa, N.M. They also increased the time of the study from two weeks to four to test whether the boost in produce sales waned as the novelty of the placards and arrows wore off. They were pleased to learn that produce purchases continued to climb steadily throughout the study period.

The duo is currently conducting another in-store trial developed by Niculescu, which uses mirrors placed in shopping carts as a subtle nudge to consumers toward lower-calorie choices. They expect to have data in hand from this research early next year.

Through a cooperative agreement with USDA, Payne said they?ll begin in January interviewing participants in the Women, Infants and Children program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to understand more about barriers to fruit and vegetable purchases.

?For example, WIC has about 20 percent of its benefit for fruits and vegetables go unused,? Payne said. ?For SNAP, only about 20 percent of that benefit gets used for fruits and vegetables, so now we?re working on doing a series of studies with Extension on how we can improve that.?

They?ll be looking at reconfiguring sales circulars inside the grocery stores, using their knowledge of menu psychology to highlight fruits and vegetables. Another study will explore the impact of providing informational nudges ? what is a normal or appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables to buy, for example ? to WIC and SNAP participants when they check their electronic balances before they shop. Still another study will look to provide in-store marketing directly to WIC and SNAP participants to help increase their fruit and vegetable purchases.

Payne said they?ll also be looking at ways to reach out to WIC and SNAP participants directly by providing them easy-to-use rules of thumb to know the amount of fruit and vegetables to purchase.

New Mexico is the most food-insecure state for children in the nation, with almost 30 percent of children experiencing some level of food insecurity, according to a report by Feeding America, a hunger relief charity and national food bank network. In Luna County, according to the report, which is available at feedingamerica.org, that rate for children is nearly 40 percent.

In about two-thirds of these food-insecure households, families manage to get enough to eat, but reduce the quality, variety or desirability of their meals to do so, according to the USDA. Members of these low food security households are at elevated risk for a number of problematic health and developmental conditions.

The USDA?s WIC, SNAP and other programs serve as a safety net to help offset that insecurity. To be eligible for SNAP, household income must be below 130 percent of the poverty threshold; for WIC assistance, participants must fall below 185 percent of poverty.

Payne said a large percentage of WIC and SNAP program participants look up their benefit balance electronically before they come to the grocery store ? and that?s a great opportunity to provide messages with social influence information that might nudge them toward healthier purchases.

Niculescu notes that one goal of this research is to have an impact on some of these most nutritionally vulnerable groups.

?I think we?re doing our best to use marketing in a way that benefits consumers, rather than simply selling products,? Niculescu said. ?The consumers may not be aware of it, but research suggests that we actually changed their behaviors. I think it?s one way to give back.?

Payne said many manufacturers are beginning to change their products to cater to a more health-conscious consumer base, but ?a free-range, multi-grain, multi-vitamin sandwich cookie is still not an apple.? He said the influencers he and Niculescu are using are not actively demoting manufactured, packaged foods, but if they can create a demand for fresh produce, maybe manufacturers will start thinking about how to compete there.

?If we can start showing how really powerful in-store marketing tools for fruits and vegetables can be, we can compete with manufacturers on their own turf and use these tools for consumer welfare,? Payne said. ?These seemingly inconsequential changes in grocery stores can have significant impacts on people?s lives.?