We've all been there: After a long day of shopping, you're caught up in a long checkout line at a store. As you weave your way through the queue, you're surrounded by different varieties of gourmet popcorn, artisan chocolate bars and a mini-fridge containing some overpriced sodas. You're so tired and so hungry, and you grab a bag of the first food item you see and a caffeinated fizzy drink — just to tide you over until your next meal. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?
While this impulse food purchase may be an afterthought for you, it's actually an incredibly lucrative retail strategy.
"There is a tremendous amount of research and science and money that goes into this," Bob Wright, director of education at Hilton Head Health tells SheKnows. "It’s not random that TJ Maxx, Home Depot and almost all stores now put food in or around the checkout."
The fact that these aren't grocery stores makes this even trickier. For many people who are being mindful of what they purchase and eventually eat, going into a supermarket or convenience store is something typically done with caution. You know the shelves in these stores are lined with foods and beverages of all types, so you go in with a game plan — maybe a list — and stick to it.
But the same can't be said for large big-box chains, department stores and even more specialized retail establishments. You don't go into Best Buy to buy candy and potato chips, but when you see it at the checkout, it might seem like a good idea — a nice treat while watching a movie on your new TV.
Not only that, but there's no way around a trip to the checkout.
"If you’re in a store and want to buy something, you must go to the checkout — you can’t avoid it," Wright says. "That's why it's considered the most valuable section of a store — even referred to as 'beachfront property' in retail."
And even though you may go into a grocery store with a list and a plan, it doesn't necessarily mean you're safe from the checkout area. Wright explains that even when shoppers successfully avoided the tempting junk-food sections of the supermarket, they're frequently unable to resist the candy and soda in the checkout line because that's when we lose our resistance.
The paradoxical — and potentially positive — part here is that the snacks shoppers deliberately passed by in the aisles are typically larger and cheaper than the checkout versions. While that makes them a better monetary value, it means that if you are reaching for a not-great-for-you snack while you're in line, at least it's a smaller portion size, he adds.
Pharmacies are another location with a full range of unhealthy impulse buys at the checkout. The sad part, Wright says, is that people are going to the drugstore to pick up prescriptions and other items for their health, but on their way out (because again, the checkout is inevitable) are faced with row after row of tempting food items.
Whether you're in a home-improvement store or your local supermarket, the tendency to impulse shop in the checkout line comes down to decisional fatigue, Wright explains. In other words, you have to make so many different decisions and remember so many things throughout the day that by the time you get around to doing the shopping, chances are you're exhausted and will reach for the first thing in front of you.
But why is so much of the food in the checkout area not the best stuff to put in your body? Sure, you'll find more granola bars and nuts than you did a few years ago, but by and large, we're dealing with sugary candy, gum and other sweets. According to Wright, this is because placement in this prime retail real estate is expensive, and a lot of the smaller, start-up healthier brands can't afford the space.
So what are some ways to combat the temptation of the products in the checkout line? Wright suggests going in prepared: Make sure you're hydrated, have already eaten and carry an emergency healthy snack in your bag or your car so you have something even easier to reach for when the decisional fatigue kicks in.
And while we know we're supposed to "think differently" about shopping strategies, Wright acknowledges that it's really hard to change thought patterns without something else to replace it. For this, he recommends the STOP approach to mindful shopping and eating.
Of course, we can't all be perfect all the time — and that's OK. But at least being aware of the challenges of the checkout section and knowing that the placement of these foods there is no accident may help you make better choices.
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