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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.

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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    How to Stay Calm and Cool When You Are Extremely Stressful

    How to Stay Calm and Cool When You Are Extremely Stressful

    Being in a hurry all the time drains your energy. Your work and routine life make you feel overwhelmed. Getting caught up in things beyond your control stresses you out…

    If you’d like to stay calm and cool in stressful situations, put the following 8 steps into practice:

    1. Breathe

    The next time you’re faced with a stressful situation that makes you want to hurry, stop what you’re doing for one minute and perform the following steps:

    • Take five deep breaths in and out (your belly should come forward with each inhale).
    • Imagine all that stress leaving your body with each exhale.
    • Smile. Fake it if you have to. It’s pretty hard to stay grumpy with a goofy grin on your face.

    Feel free to repeat the above steps every few hours at work or home if you need to.

    2. Loosen up

    After your breathing session, perform a quick body scan to identify any areas that are tight or tense. Clenched jaw? Rounded shoulders? Anything else that isn’t at ease?

    Gently touch or massage any of your body parts that are under tension to encourage total relaxation. It might help to imagine you’re in a place that calms you: a beach, hot tub, or nature trail, for example.

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    3. Chew slowly

    Slow down at the dinner table if you want to learn to be patient and lose weight. Shoveling your food down as fast as you can is a surefire way to eat more than you need to (and find yourself with a bellyache).

    Be a mindful eater who pays attention to the taste, texture, and aroma of every dish. Chew slowly while you try to guess all of the ingredients that were used to prepare your dish.

    Chewing slowly will also reduce those dreadful late-night cravings that sneak up on you after work.

    4. Let go

    Cliche as it sounds, it’s very effective.

    The thing that seems like the end of the world right now?

    It’s not. Promise.

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    Stressing and worrying about the situation you’re in won’t do any good because you’re already in it, so just let it go.

    Letting go isn’t easy, so here’s a guide to help you:

    21 Things To Do When You Find It Hard To Let Go

    5. Enjoy the journey

    Focusing on the end result can quickly become exhausting. Chasing a bold, audacious goal that’s going to require a lot of time and patience? Split it into several mini-goals so you’ll have several causes for celebration.

    Stop focusing on the negative thoughts. Giving yourself consistent positive feedback will help you grow patience, stay encouraged, and find more joy in the process of achieving your goals.

    6. Look at the big picture

    The next time you find your stress level skyrocketing, take a deep breath, and ask yourself:

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    Will this matter to me…

    • Next week?
    • Next month?
    • Next year?
    • In 10 years?

    Hint: No, it won’t.

    I bet most of the stuff that stresses you wouldn’t matter the next week, maybe not even the next day.

    Stop agonizing over things you can’t control because you’re only hurting yourself.

    7. Stop demanding perfection of yourself

    You’re not perfect and that’s okay. Show me a person who claims to be perfect and I’ll show you a dirty liar.

    Demanding perfection of yourself (or anybody else) will only stress you out because it just isn’t possible.

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    8. Practice patience every day

    Below are a few easy ways you can practice patience every day, increasing your ability to remain calm and cool in times of stress:

    • The next time you go to the grocery store, get in the longest line.
    • Instead of going through the drive-thru at your bank, go inside.
    • Take a long walk through a secluded park or trail.

    Final thoughts

    Staying calm in stressful situations is possible, all you need is some daily practice.

    Taking deep breaths and eat mindfully are some simple ways to train your brain to be more patient. But changing the way you think of a situation and staying positive are most important in keeping cool whenever you feel overwhelmed and stressful.

    Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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