How the checkout aisle became a ‘maze’ to fuel impulse purchases

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We have all been there. You’ve gone out shopping, picked up everything on your list, and headed to the cashier.

Unfortunately, it’s not a straight line to checkout. Instead, you’re led through a winding hallway full of tempting items and usually small items to pick up along the way.

You probably weren’t looking to buy an entire bag of maple caramel squares. But they look good now that you look at them.

The modern checkout aisle has become one of retailers’ most important tools for fueling impulse purchases – especially during the holiday season – and it’s been carefully designed to make its wares impossible to resist.

“They can make checkout really quick, let you checkout right away. Instead, they create this maze to keep you in the store for as long as possible,” said Ying Zhu, professor of marketing at the Okanagan campus of the UBC.

A meta-analysis of research dating from 2012 through the 1950s found that impulse purchases, including but not limited to the checkout aisle, accounted for 40-80% of shopper spending, depending on the store or product category.

And, according to a 2021 report by marketing research firm IRI, Americans spent US$6 billion (more than C$8 billion) on purchases at checkouts in 2020.

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According to Shawn Schmidt, a professor who teaches retail merchandising at Seneca College in Toronto, a key strategy for encouraging impulse purchases focuses on so-called “hit points” – parts of the store that receive the most traffic or sales. eye contact.

Those sweet spots could include end caps — the shorter ends of aisles that see traffic from multiple directions — and shelves that are at most people’s eye level.

« Vendors pay money to the retailer, especially in a grocery store environment, to have their product displayed there, » he said.

The checkout aisle « seems to be becoming a much more normal thing » in Canada, Schmidt said – from Winners to HomeSense, sometimes with a product selection entirely separated from the rest of the aisles and shelves.

Low price, high markup

Marianne Wright of Brighton, Ont., says she’s generally immune to the temptations of the checkout lane.

« Normally I don’t even really notice them, if I’m being honest. I’m pretty laser-focused when I’m shopping, » she said.

This changes during the Christmas holiday season, when they offer the perfect Christmas stocking style gifts.

« At Indigo, I bought fancy flea clips for my husband. They’re shaped like little nostrils, » she said. She also bought poppers for her children.

Close up of Christmas themed products on a department store shelf.
Checkout aisles are often completely revamped to showcase seasonal holiday gifts. (Jennifer Keene/CBC)

When Wright is shopping for stocking stuffers, she sticks to a limit of $10 per item for anything she picks up from the checkout aisle.

Schmidt says the ideal price for these items is between $10 and $20 – and many of them can be extremely profitable.

« They have a very low buy point, but the profit margin is huge, » he said.

« Hedonic » products

Wright says sometimes the most appealing items are the ones she would never expect to see in a given store. One year she remembers finding camping trinkets at a Marshalls department store.

« You’re like, it’s nothing to do with being here. But my husband and I do a lot of camping, » she said.

Sometimes the checkout aisle’s unusual assortments make it an attraction in itself.

« Canadian Tire is famous for it. Some of the things you go to at Canadian Tire [for] and think, OK, I’m going for the hardware. But the next thing you know, you’re in the aisle and there are chips, chocolates and protein bars, » Schmidt said.

Some of the most popular items you’ll see down the aisle are known as hedonic products. Think hand cream, scented candles, chocolates and other snacks. Zhu says these products can « increase people’s excitement, joy and happiness. »

In contrast, relatively mundane items that you were theoretically going to buy eventually — batteries, band-aids or a simple lighter — are doing well, Schmidt said.

Don’t stand there, buy something

Simply queuing has its pros or cons, depending on your perspective.

Schmidt says the distraction can help calm or distract customers if they’re tired after a long shopping spree or frustrated from having to wait in line.

If you stand right behind someone who is actively browsing checkout items and picks one up, it will likely inspire you to do the same, Zhu said.

Shelves of boxed goods in a Winners store.
Products such as puzzles and board games line a checkout aisle at Winners in Calgary. (Jennifer Keene/CBC)

We might even be persuaded to take something just to avoid awkward eye contact or small talk with the stranger standing next to us, she added.

« Sometimes people try to avoid discomfort, » she said. « There are strangers around. They don’t know where to put their eyes. [So] they just look at the shelf, and [will] pick up something to occupy yourself with. »

The conscience of the friend of shopping

Wright, who used to work in marketing herself, says she’s not particularly concerned with how retailers feed the checkout aisle — at least not compared to the myriad of other marketing strategies she does. they use elsewhere in stores or other advertisements.

« Every purchase choice you make, you’ve been influenced to make, whether it’s … a recommendation from a friend or the company, doing really good publicity, » she said.

But if you’re actively trying to avoid impulse buying, especially during the holiday season, Zhu says the classic tips and strategies still apply.

Make a list and stick to it. Don’t start shopping if you’re already tired or depressed. Or, as she does, shop with a friend to help control those impulses.

« Before we leave, we’re going to say to ourselves, if one of us picks up something, the other person is going to say, ‘Do you really need this? Are you really going to wear it? buy it?’ -she says.


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