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Why Stores Place Candy by the Checkout Counter (And Why New Habits Fail)

Why Stores Place Candy by the Checkout Counter (And Why New Habits Fail)

Selling candy bars can teach you a lot about building better habits. Before I tell you why, let’s start at the beginning.

The Science of Candy Bars

In 1952, an economist by the name of Hawkins Stern was working at the Stanford Research Institute in Southern California, where he spent his time analyzing consumer behavior. During that same year, he published a little-known paper titled, The Significance of Impulse Buying Today.

In that paper, Stern described a phenomenon he called Suggestion Impulse Buying, which “is triggered when a shopper sees a product for the first time and visualizes a need for it.”

Suggestion Impulse Buying says that customers buy things not necessarily because they want them, but because of how they are presented to them. This simple idea—that where products are placed can influence what customers will buy—has fascinated retailers and grocery stores ever since the moment Stern put the concept into words.

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How to Sell Candy Bars

Candy sales are very seasonal. Bulk candy purchases tend to be made around Halloween and other holidays, which means that during the majority of the year candy never makes it onto the grocery list. Obviously, this isn’t what candy companies want, since they would prefer to have sales continue throughout the year.

Because candy isn’t an item you are going to seek out during most trips to the grocery store, it is positioned in a highly visible place where you’ll see it even if you aren’t looking for it: the checkout line.

But why the checkout line? If it was just about visibility, the store could put candy right by the front door so that everyone saw it as soon as they walked inside.

The second reason candy is at the checkout line is because of a concept called decision fatigue. The basic idea is that your willpower is like a muscle. Like any muscle, it gets fatigued with use. The more decisions you ask your brain to make, the more fatigued your willpower becomes.

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If you saw a box of candy bars at the front door, you would be more likely to resist grabbing one. By the time you get to the checkout counter, however, the number of choices about what to buy and what not to buy has drained your willpower enough that you give in and make the impulse purchase. This is why grocery stores place candy at the checkout counter and not the front door.

OK, but what does a Kit Kat bar have to do with building better habits?

3 Ways to Change Your Habits

At a basic level, a store that wants to sell more candy wants to change human behavior. And whether you’re trying to lose weight, become more productive, create art on a more consistent basis, or otherwise build a new habit, you want to change human behavior too. Let’s take a look at what the grocery store did to drive additional purchases of candy bars and talk about how those concepts apply to your life.

First, grocery stores removed the friction that prevented a certain behavior. They realized that people were only buying candy in bulk around the holidays, so they cut down the size of the purchase and sold candy bars one at a time.

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You can do the same thing with your habits. What are the points of friction that prevent you from taking a behavior right now? Does the task seem overwhelming (like the equivalent of buying 40 pieces of candy when you only want 1 piece)? Then start with a small habit. Examples include: doing 10 pushups per day rather than 50 per day, writing 1 post per week rather than 1 per day, running for 5 minutes rather than 5 miles, and so on. Starting small is valuable because objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

Second, grocery stores created an environment that promoted the new behavior. Retailers recognized that unless the holidays were around the corner, people were unlikely to browse the store and seek out candy bars, so they moved the candy bars to a place where people didn’t have to seek them out: the checkout line.

How can you change your environment so that you don’t have to seek out your new habits? How can you adjust your kitchen so that you can eat healthy without thinking? How can you shift your workspace so that digital distractions are minimized? How can you create a space that promotes the good behaviors and prevents the bad ones? Surround yourself with better choices and you’ll make better choices.

Third, grocery stores stacked the new behavior at a time when the energy was right for it. As we’ve already covered, you’re more likely to give in and buy the candy bar at the checkout line because decision fatigue has set in. Of course, it’s not just decision fatigue that saps our willpower and motivation. There are a variety of positive and negative daily tasks that drain your brain. Periods of intense focus, frustration, self-control, and confusion are all examples of how you can deplete your mental battery.

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When it comes to building better habits, you can deal with this issue in two ways.

  1. You can take active steps to reduce the areas that deplete your willpower. In the words of Kathy Sierra, you have to “manage your cognitive leaks.” This means eliminating distractions and focusing on the essential. It’s much easier to stick with good habits if you subtract the negative influences. Self-control has a cost. Every time you use it, you pay. Make sure you’re paying for the things that matter to you, not the stuff that is useless or provides marginal value to your life.
  2. You can perform your habit at a time when your energy is right for it. Stores ask you to buy candy bars when you are most likely to say yes. Similarly, you should ask yourself to perform new habits when you are mostly likely to succeed. Your motivation ebbs and flows throughout the day, so make sure the difficulty of your habit matches your current level of motivation. Big habits are usually best if attempted early in the day when your motivation and willpower are high (or after a lunch break when you’ve had a chance to eat and rejuvenate).

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    Your Environment Drives Your Habits

    We like to think that we are in control of our behavior. If we buy a candy bar, we assume it is because we wanted a candy bar. The truth, however, is that many of the actions we take each day are simply a response to the environment we find ourselves in. We buy candy bars because the store is designed to get us to buy candy bars.

    Similarly, we stick to good habits (or repeat bad habits) because the environments that we live in each day—our kitchens and bedrooms, our offices and workspaces—are designed to promote these behaviors. Change your environment and your behavior will follow.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    More by this author

    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on January 11, 2021

    11 Hidden Benefits of Using Oil Diffusers

    11 Hidden Benefits of Using Oil Diffusers

    Affordable, relaxing, and healthy, oil diffusers are gaining popularity with people everywhere due to their extensive benefits. Oil diffusers work through the simple process of oil diffusion, which uses heat to turn oil into a vapor that is then spread around a living space. Diffused oil can have several relaxation and health-related benefits, including safe scent-dispersion, mosquito and mold defense, stress relief, and more!

    Read on for 11 hidden benefits of using oil diffusers.

    1. Safe Scents That Make Sense

    Unlike candles or air fresheners, oil diffusers release cleansing molecules into your air that work to purify it, not overload it with unhealthy chemicals. Electronic diffusers also do not pose the fire risk that candles do. Plus, they contain the added feature of interchangeability, which means you change oil types for different scents and health benefits.

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    2. Stress Relief

    Several lab studies have confirmed that diffusing essential oils like lavender have been shown to reduce stress and help relieve anxiety in medical patients. Preliminary studies have also shown that oil diffusers can help alleviate symptoms of depression.

    3. Improved Sleep

    Diffused oil has relaxing properties that can help people of all ages fall asleep quicker and sleep more soundly. Electronic diffusers not only have the option to mix and match different oil blends (Try a lavender, Bulgarian rose, and Roman chamomile blend to help with insomnia), they also run at a gentle hum that helps relax an agitated mind. Many also come with an auto shut-off feature to help conserve oils once you have fallen asleep.

    4. Appetite Control

    Much like gum, oil diffusers can help stimulate the senses in a way that works to curb appetite. New research has shown that diffused peppermint oil can help curb appetite by inducing a satiety response within the body. Diffused peppermint oil has also been shown to increase energy.

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    5. Bacteria and Mold Killing

    When essential oils are diffused in the air, they break down free radicals that contribute to the growth of harmful bacteria. Eucalyptus, thyme, and tea tree oils are especially good for this purpose. Diffused oil is also highly effective when it comes to combating fungal yeast threats, as the oil help makes the air inhospitable for yeasts such as mold. Pine and red thyme essential oils are best for combating mold.

    6. Decongestion and Mucus Control

    Ever tried Vick’s Vapo-Rub? Its decongesting powers come from active ingredients made from the eucalyptus tree. In principle, oil diffusers work the same way as Vapo-Rub, except they diffuse their decongesting vapor all around the room, not just on your chest or neck. Oil diffusers have been known to cure pneumonia in lab mice.

    7. Mosquito Repellant

    Nobody likes mosquitoes — but when the trade-off means using repellants full of DEET, a toxic chemical that can be especially harmful to children, mosquito control can often seem like a lose-lose. However, scientists have shown that oil diffusers can be used as a safe and highly effective mosquito repellant. Studies have shown that a diffused oil mixture containing clove essential oil and lemongrass essential oil repelled one type of Zika-carrying mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, at a rate of 100%.

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    8. Pain Relief

    While applying oils directly to areas of your body may be the most effective way to alleviate pain, diffusing essential oils can also be an effective means of pain relief. When we inhale healthy essential oils, they enter our blood stream and can help internally relieve persistent pain from headaches, overworked muscles, and sore joints.

    9. The New Anti-Viral

    Research into the anti-viral effects of oil diffusion is now just gaining steam. A recent study showed that star anise essential oil was proven in medical experiments to destroy the herpes simplex virus in contained areas at a rate of 99%. Another study showed the popular DoTerra oil blend OnGuard to have highly-effective influenza-combating powers.

    10. Improved Cognitive Function

    Diffusing essential oils has also been shown to improve cognitive function. Many essential oils have adaptogenic qualities, which can work twofold in soothing us when we’re stressed, and giving our bodies a pick-me-up when we’re feeling down or sluggish. By working to level out an imbalanced mood, diffused oils also help us to focus. There are also several essential oils which have been shown to help balance the body’s hormones. With prolonged use, these oils can work to repair the underlying causes responsible for hindering cognitive function.

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    11. Money Saving

    With ten clear benefits of oil diffusers already outlined, there is one more that should now be obvious: using an oil diffuser will help you to save money. As an anti-viral, bug repelling, and stress-relief solution rolled into one safe product, an oil diffuser used with the proper oils will save you money on products you might otherwise be buying to help cure those pesky headaches or get your kids to fall asleep on time. If you’re wondering just how affordable oil diffusers can be, check the buyer’s guide to the best oil diffusers — you’ll be sure to find one that fits your budget!

    Featured photo credit: Jopeel Quimpo via unsplash.com

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