Secrets of a Supermarket: The Science of Selling

Lou Gorfain

There exists an arcane branch of psychology dubbed “Supermarket Science." To uncover the secrets of how and why we buy our groceries, researchers treat a supermarket floor as a behavioral lab. They track such factors as our route through the store, our eyeball movement in the aisles, even our conversation at the checkout counter. As a result, nothing in a supermarket is there by happenstance. 

So how much does a supermarket play the customer?  Encourage you to buy more?

To find out, we asked Robert Reinisch the manger of Stamford's Fairway market to candidly talk about his store’s selling strategies. We chose Fairway not only to take advantage of Reinisch's openness and passion to do well by his customers, but also because it’s a food-centric supermarket. No banks, no pharmacy, no kitchenware, not even a loyalty card (another window on your personal buying habits.) 

We asked Robert about the first axiom of Supermarket Science: “The more time spent in the store, the more money spent in a store.” 

"Absolutely we want the customer to spend as much time as possible here," Reinisch allowed. "Our average shopping trip lasts about an hour."

 Wow, that's 50% longer than the national average of 40 minutes.  What’s Fairway’s secret?  Appealing to a customer’s basic emotions.

Like all supermarkets, there are no clocks in the store to remind shoppers that time might be a wasting. Rather, the customer’s eye is drawn to Fairway’s extensive signage, bigger and brighter than most other markets. Huge posters beckon the shopper to stop, read, and learn about the provenance and preparation of a food. Each also contains an unspoken  message: Fairway is for foodies. You’re here to make informed decisions about the food you buy … so what’s the rush? 

Like all supermarkets, Fairway is filled with subliminal semiotics. The customer enters at produce, where tempting sale prices prime the spending pump, while freshness reinforces a feeling of health and quality. In addition, Fairway’s huge mountains of fruits, berries and greens signal “bounty” and free customers to be plentiful in their selections. The landscape of fresh, familiar fruits and vegetables is relaxing, reassuring and reinforces a feeling of trust.

First impressions at other stores like Whole Foods begin with the vivid colors and fragrance of cut flowers -- a message of healthy nature and good value. (Resist the low prices. Supermarket florals usually suffer a short life span.)

Other markets, like Stew Leonard’s, welcome shoppers with the tempting aroma of baked goods, which excite saliva glands, whet appetites and motivate sales.   Dollars and Scents.  Pavlov would be proud.

At ShopRite on Commerce, customers discover a café as they enter.  This sets a tone of consumption right before a one-two punch of produce followed by bakery.

All supermarkets deploy a full spectrum of sensory stimuli to encourage buying: music, fragrances, lighting, even nuances like colors Much of Fairway’s sensory strategy simply aims at the customer’s palate. 

“Most people think they shouldn’t shop on an empty stomach,” Reinisch admits. “But I encourage shoppers to come hungry, because we’re going to feed them.”

That strategy comes into play immediately after the customer emerges from the produce section. She beholds what seems to be a lavish banquet of cheeses, appetizers, deli, smoked fish, olive oils and pickles. Counterstaff and roving ambassadors encourage the shopper to stop, to learn, to sample, and of course, to salivate. 

If those high margin temptations don’t slow the customer down, the real stopper is the help yourself olive oil station, burnished with dipping bread and small bowls of oils from around the world. We conducted an informal survey one morning and counted one of three shoppers stopping to taste.

Fairway’s perimeter is designed to feel like a market, not an aisle, a bustling neighborhood, chock full of specialty shops and knowledgeable shopkeepers.  Whole Foods invokes a farmer’s market alongside a country road.  Fairway signals urban, WF rustic.  Arthur Avenue vs. Route 1.

At Fairway, the customer turns the corner to the back of the store and discovers a seafood shop with working fish mongers, a busy meat market with a bevy of butchers cutting beef, poultry and pork to order while answering customer questions, and finally a working bakery with cooks removing breads, bagels and pastries from the ovens. Reinisch even took out a wall so the customer could see his bakers and the ingredients they use. Though the bakery is out in the open, you need to hunt for the commercial breads which are placed in a low traffic middle aisle. 

“Yes, that’s intentional, “ Reinish concedes. “Our homemade breads are more healthy, less processed, and about the same price.” That they are also more profitable went without saying.

As most supermarkets, Fairway locates essentials at the back of the store, There’s little grab and go. With key items on the outskirts, the customer is pulled deep into the market and exposed to more product.  At Fairway, chilled and frozen items like ice cream are conveniently found nearer the checkout counter since they wouldn’t survive a one hour sojourn.

Like Whole Foods, Fairway’s shopping flow is largely clockwise, with entrance at the left of the store and exit at the right. Reinisch feels Americans prefer right turns. We drive and walk on the right. And according to those eyeball studies we tend to buy on the right,( In left lane London, however, researchers have discovered that counterclockwise, or southpaw shopping, results in  higher sales.)   

Eyeball tracking also validates what every shopper knows: when given a choice of products in an aisle, we usually pick what’s in front of our eyes:  at mid shelf level. Most supermarkets sell that prime space to popular high margin labels like Coke, Kraft, or Kelloggs, relegating low profit items, like their cheaper house brands, to the lower and higher shelves. (Of course in the candy aisle, the racks at kid height are deemed prime real estate.)

Fairway reserves some mid-shelf space and endcap placement for its extensive and profitable house brands. While the products are competitively priced, the store doesn’t have to pay middle men. “More importantly,” Reinisch confides, “we genuinely feel our products are of the highest quality. We know what goes in them and we’re proud of our label. ” He also believes his high quality house brands build customer loyalty and help make Fairway destination shopping. 

Stew Leonard’s stocks only 2000 different items.  Trader Joe offers 2500. Buying in bulk creates good margin, though it does limit choice.  

However, the average supermarket carries 35,000 different SKUs, attempting to afford the customer choice without confusion. In contrast, Fairway stocks over 80,000 distinct SKU’s. Reinisch admitted his long, jam packed shelves might overwhelm and intimidate some shoppers, but he caters to foodies who want to feel confident they will likely find the product they seek, no matter how exotic.    (A cross street that bisects the aisles conveniently opens space … and doubles the number of endcaps 

A feeling of bounty extends throughout the store.  Except down the freezer aisle.  Most of Reinisch’s customers cook rather than zap.  (Despite its outward impression of good for you groceries, Whole Foods relies on expensive prepared foods far more than Fairway.)

We asked Robert about the best day to shop. “If you want a leisurely experience, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is the best time,” he said. Showtime is Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. “If you’re looking for action and excitement, come on weekends.”

What about Monday? “Actually Monday is becoming one of our busy days,” he told us. “People wake up after a busy weekend and realize they’re low on groceries.”

Reinisch’s personal shopping secrets?. “I really pay attention to unit pricing.  Also I write out a shopping list in the order of the store’s layout.”

But isn’t the secret of success to lengthen not shorten the consumer’s time in store, to respond to brand names not unit prices?

“The real secret of Fairway's success is to make the shopping experience emotional,” the manager concluded. “We want our customers to be wowed by our unique product selection, service, and merchandising.”

Wowing the customer. Modern behavioral psychology ….. or just old fashion common sense?