Different Grocery Store Layouts May Help Shoppers Choose Healthier Foods, Study Says

Shopping for nutritious foods

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Key Takeaways

  • Supermarkets are the main source of food for many families, and how foods are displayed and marketed can influence customers’ food choices.
  • Grocery shoppers are likely to buy fruits and vegetables when they are easy to access at the checkout.
  • Changing the store layout can help increase sales of fruits and vegetables, which can substantially impact healthy lifestyles.

Grocery stores are laid out in a way that benefits the consumer’s shopping experience, but also in a way that boosts store sales. When stores are designed, health may not be top of mind, and product placement is not always based on helping consumers buy nourishing foods. But what if it could be? Would that change your buying decisions?

In a new study published in PLOS Medicine, researchers assessed if creating a healthier product layout in grocery stores could impact the nutritiousness of foods bought by customers. They also assessed how sales and purchase behaviors may be affected if snacks and treats are moved to a different part of the store, and vegetables and fruit are more prominent.

"Research indicates that some areas of food stores are particularly effective for promoting product sales, including near the store entrance, aisle-ends, and checkouts because they are prominent and easily seen by the customers," says Christina Vogel, PhD, RNutr, a public health nutrition scientist at the University of Southampton in the UK, and one of the researchers on this study.

About the Study

The researchers set up a prospective matched controlled cluster trial for 6 months at three different discount grocery stores in England. Female customers 18 to 45 years old were assigned to either the interventions group (62 women) or the control group (88 women). There also were two intervention components which included:

  • Adding fruit and vegetable sections near store entrances, which replaced the usual smaller displays at the back of the store
  • Removing confectionery from checkouts and aisle ends

Christina Vogel, PhD, RNutr

Our results showed that substantial improvements could be made to population diet through the adoption of a healthier store layout.

— Christina Vogel, PhD, RNutr

The researchers used three similar stores as “control” stores to match sales, customer profiles, and neighborhood type. What they found was that almost 10,000 additional portions of fruit and vegetables were purchased in each store on a weekly basis when a larger fruit and vegetable section was placed near the store entrance rather than at the back of the store.

“Our results showed that substantial improvements could be made to population diet through the adoption of a healthier store layout,” says Dr. Vogel. “Specifically, our research showed that removing confectionery and other unhealthy foods from checkouts and aisle-ends led to approximately 1,500 fewer portions of confectionery being purchased in each store on a weekly basis."

Overall, there were approximately 5% more fruits and vegetables purchased at stores with a layout displaying fruits and vegetables prominently as compared to stores with more conventional layouts, she adds. Interestingly, while the study showed a clear reduction in candy sales at the store level, there was no change in candy purchasing at the household level.

"We speculate that the lack of change at the household level occurred because unhealthy food products, like confectionery, are found in several prominent locations around supermarkets. While confectionery was removed from checkouts, confectionery was still positioned at the store entrance, aisle ends, and/or in-aisle promotional baskets providing additional purchasing opportunities," says Dr. Vogel.

Big Changes Are Needed

The in-store placement of specific foods is a well-thought-out marketing technique, and it is common to find convenience items, such as chips, candy, chocolate, and soda, at checkouts and store entrances. It is rare to find vegetables in those same locations.

Making small changes to boost the visibility of vegetables and fruit, while making treats less prominent, may help consumers make different choices. But implementing just one of these strategies is not enough. Smaller changes that focus on only one area of the store do not have the same impact.

"Our findings indicate that making more comprehensive changes to the supermarket layout and limiting the prominent positioning of unhealthy foods can improve customers’ food choices," says Dr. Vogel.

What You Need to Know

Dietitian Lauren Bath, RDN, CPT indicates that certain foods are put in front of us on purpose with specific marketing goals in mind. But it is important to remember that just because a product is on sale or prominently displayed does not mean that it fits into your meal plans or goals.

Jessi Holden MS, RDN

Many companies will pay to be the first brand you see on the shelf because they know that many of us want to get in and get out of the grocery store.

— Jessi Holden MS, RDN

Bath advises clients to choose a few satisfying "treats" and encourages shopping with a grocery list containing lots of nourishing foods. This way, you have a guide and are less likely to deviate from your plan. 

"[Remember,] many companies will pay to be the first brand you see on the shelf because they know that many of us want to get in and get out of the grocery store," adds Jessi Holden MS, RDN with Holden Nutrition.

What's more, a recent study of shopping habits among women found that their shopping choices were influenced by value for money, feeling hungry, tired, or stressed, and meeting family members' food preferences.

So, it is also wise to shop after you have eaten rather than on an empty stomach when you are more likely to grab impulse purchases at the checkout. Shopping online also may help you reduce stress and make you less vulnerable to well-marketed and well-placed foods that may not align with your nutritional goals.

What This Means For You

Ideally, all grocery stores will one day have an updated layout that promotes fruits and vegetables at the front and center of the store. If that's not the case for your grocery store, shopping with a list can help you stay on track to find all the ingredients you need for the week. This will save you time, money, and help you reach your nutritional goals.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Vogel C, Crozier S, Penn-Newman D, et al. Altering product placement to create a healthier layout in supermarkets: Outcomes on store sales, customer purchasing, and diet in a prospective matched controlled cluster study. PLoS Med. 2021;18(9):e1003729. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1003729

  2. Vogel C, Abbott G, Ntani G, et al. Examination of how food environment and psychological factors interact in their relationship with dietary behaviors: test of a cross-sectional modelInt J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2019;16(1):12. doi:10.1186/s12966-019-0772-y

  3. Dhuria P, Lawrence W, Crozier S, Cooper C, Baird J, Vogel C. Women’s perceptions of factors influencing their food shopping choices and how supermarkets can support them to make healthier choicesBMC Public Health. 2021;21(1):1070. doi:10.1186/s12889-021-11112-0

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.