Research by Abhijit Guha, assistant professor of marketing
By C. Grant Jackson
How does displaying numeric information, such as the number of calories in a product, work with shoppers’ goals to influence what they buy?
Research by Abhijit Guha, assistant professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, and his colleagues shows that when lower calorie food items are placed beneath higher calorie ones on a shelf — such as 80 calorie yogurts below 112 calorie yogurts — shoppers easily do the math. Those who care about calories, often those who are diet-conscious, then give more power to the calorie gap, which leads them to prefer the lower-calorie item, the research shows.
If the retailer flips the display, however, putting the lower-calorie item above the higher-calorie item, “You will still do it [prefer the lower-calorie item], but you are less likely to. It’s just harder to do,” Guha said.
According to Guha, this idea only holds true if the shopper is diet-focused, or health conscious. The reverse is true for shoppers who are more taste-focused. These shoppers tend to view foods labeled “low calorie” or “diet” as less appealing; their focus on taste can lead them toward the higher-calorie item.
How retailers present the numbers to the consumer — whether the focus is on sale price or calories — can help nudge consumers one way or the other, the research shows.
In the case of food, the consumer walks in with certain goals — diet or taste. What the retailer controls is how they present the information, and the interaction of the two leads to certain outcomes, Guha said.
“You walk in with a diet code, the retailer presents the information in an easy-to-understand manner, and you buy the healthier option. You walk in with a taste code, you go exactly the other way.”
The research, which is ongoing and has generated two papers for academic journals, is essentially about how to present numerical information.
“To the extent you can make the calculations easier, people pay more attention, they put more weight on it and it is a bigger factor in their decision,” Guha said.
The first paper focused on price and how a retailer can display the sale and regular price to make it easier for the consumer to decide if the deal is worth it. The current paper focuses on food, and Guha says there are other areas where numerical information is presented that the research could come into play.
The research involved two sets of studies, including a field study of the launch of a new Coca-Cola product in Sweden in mid-2014. Coca-Cola Life, a reduced-calorie cola that contains no aspartame, is generally perceived as being healthier than alternatives. For the study, a display was stocked with either regular Coca-Cola on the upper shelves and Coca-Cola Life on the bottom shelves or the reverse. In each case, the caloric information for each product was clearly visible.
The field study showed that for those shoppers more concerned with diet than taste, displaying the Coca-Cola Life underneath the higher-calorie regular Coke, with the attendant calorie information, increased the likelihood of them choosing the Coca-Cola Life. However, for those shoppers less concerned with diet and more concerned with taste, the opposite was true.
The researchers also conducted laboratory studies focused on two other food items — chocolate, again with an emphasis on calories, and canned soup, with an emphasis on sodium.
With the chocolate, participants were shown two boxes of candy. Each chocolate in box W had 91 calories and each chocolate in box K had approximately 68 calories. Participants were shown the boxes both in an aligned manner, with box W above box K, and in a non-aligned manner with box K above box W. Participants were then asked which box they would prefer. Again, when taste was important, participants’ preference for box W (the higher-calorie box) was much greater when box W was above box K. In contrast, when diet was more important than taste, box K came out on top.
The soup can experiment provided similar results. Participants with diet goals were more likely to choose lower sodium soup, and those who emphasized taste over diet were more likely not to. Again, cans were displayed in both an aligned and non-aligned manner, with sodium content clearly displayed.
In two other lab studies involving kitchen knives and cell phone batteries, the researchers generalized their findings beyond just food. With the kitchen knives, they found that when the sale price is shown below the regular price, making the math easy, the best deal wins out. Similarly, when cell phone battery displays show battery life information clearly and in a manner that makes it easier to compare, it can lead shoppers to choose the battery with a longer battery life.
Based on this research, differences in shelf display can clearly influence shoppers. Guha believes his findings can help retailers “optimize in-store shelf displays.” To the extent that a retailer knows shoppers’ goals, they “can use display differences to increase sales of the more profitable products within the category.” The researchers say their findings can also help online retailers consider how to display items on web pages and how grocery stores should display items on their flyers.
One area Guha would like to do additional work on is restaurants. He believes the research may apply to menus. “Do you put the higher-calorie items above or below?”
Most of the research has been centered on stores, “but one day, I would love to test it in a restaurant. You could even put up a fast food truck and test it.”
Guha’s paper, “An Empirical Analysis of the Joint Effects of Shoppers’ Goals and Attribute Display on Shoppers’ Evaluations,” was published in the American Marketing Association (AMA) Journal of Marketing in May 2018.
Other members of the research team included Abhijit Biswas, Kmart Endowed Chair and professor of marketing at Wayne State University; Dhruv Grewal, Toyota Chair in E-Commerce and Electronic Business and professor of marketing at Babson College; Sandeep Bhowmick, assistant professor of marketing at Indiana State University; and Jens Nordfalt, assistant professor of marketing and strategy at the Stockholm School of Economics.