Behavior Change
Choice Architecture, Not More Info, Key to Healthier Purchasing Habits

Recent studies suggest consumers are increasingly motivated to buy sustainable products, especially the rising generation of socially motivated millennials — that’s the headline in the sustainable business community. But we also know that it’s difficult to motivate consumers to act upon their best intentions. They may state their preference to buy organic, ethically produced products in the abstract, but their actual choice may be different at the point of purchase.

Recent research by Danish behavioral design consultancy Krukow reveals simple strategies that have broad applicability for businesses trying to secure market share with sustainable product offerings.

Through the use of ‘nudging’ strategies, behavioral economics and cognitive psychology, Krukow helps companies and the public sector understand and appeal to their stakeholders’ values.

In 2014, Krukow conducted experiments for Danish supermarket Bilka, which wanted to take advantage of the growing portion of customers interested in healthy eating. Two objectives were identified:

  • Encourage customers to buy more vegetables for their children’s daily lunch
  • Encourage customers to buy more healthy snacks

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Krukow’s experiments reveal important insights that can likely be used to spur customers’ sustainability follow-through.

"What affects what we do is the choice architecture, or design, in the instance where we make a choice, so we have to stop thinking that just by spamming us with information we can change human behavior,” lead researcher Sille Krukow says in the video. “Because that doesn't change our behavior. It's how [a product] looks in the supermarket at the moment we are there, or any other place in our every day lives."

Make It Visible, Make It Easy

The first experiment revealed the significance of products’ physical placement. Researchers discovered that parents typically began shopping for their children’s lunches in the cold cuts section. They also found that the initial choices customers made there had a large impact on the other products they purchased.

Several simple changes were implemented in this section of the grocery store. First, pictures of a lunch box combining cold cuts and vegetables were displayed to prime customers to think of vegetable as a natural part of their children’s lunch. Second, vegetables were placed in the cold counters directly next to the cold cuts, making it easier for customers to follow through.

Average sales of vegetables increased 83 percent as a result of these changes. Bilka actually ran out of vegetables during the experiment because of the volume of the demand.

Make It Automatic

According to behavioral psychology, people live their lives switching between two cognitive systems: the automatic and the reflective. We prefer to live in the former, as it allows us to conserve energy. However, much of life demands that we are reflective. For example, when consumers shop for groceries, they must engage with a plethora of reflective tasks, from planning the immediate future of what to eat, to evaluating prices, nutrition, taste, etc.

When we arrive at the cash register we’re usually drained from the reflective tasks we’ve just undertaken and are prone to switching back to automatic mode. Hence, product placement near the registers is prime real estate in stores, and brands pay top dollar to place their sugary treats there.

Krukow researchers instead placed healthy snacks at the register, enabling customers to easily make healthy choices even if they felt exhausted. The results: Average sales of these products more than doubled.

Change Choice Architecture, Build Loyal Customers

While it may seem intuitive, Krukow’s research demonstrates the power of designing market offerings around consumer needs and behaviors, rather than expecting they will adapt to what a business produces. In other words, just because a product is better or more sustainable does not mean consumers will come — even if they generally desire this.

On the contrary, the experiment showed that behavioral design is crucial for boosting sales and fostering loyalty for the long term.

As Krukow researchers conclude: “Subtle strategic changes to the choice architecture can enable customers to follow their ambitions, which creates a better shopping experience and increases customer satisfaction. In the end, customer satisfaction is often the decisive factor that separates the different shopping alternatives available to us and determines customer loyalty.”


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