Why is milk in the back?

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Mount Kisco resident Gabriella Zamora at the new Stop & Shop, formerly an A&P, in Mount Kisco. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud

The science, psychology, economics and, yes, showmanship, at work when you shop

Showtime at the Supermarket
Click on the window above for an infographic demystifying supermarket design.

From the edge of the parking lot all the way to the dairy section in the far corner of the store, Paco Underhill explains that science, psychology and economics are at work in our grocery stores.


“If we come out of a supermarket with more than we planned, it’s not really our fault,” Underhill says. “The store is designed that way. In fact, if all we bought was what’s on our list, our economy would collapse to the ground.”

Underhill, CEO of the Manhattan-based retail research and consulting firm Envirosell, wrote the book on shopping. His “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” has been published in 28 languages and sells 100,000 copies a year, 17 years after its initial release.

He calls himself a “retail anthropologist,” and his opinions are sought by supermarkets and packaged-goods makers around the globe, meaning he spends 150 nights a year on the road. One November weekday, we found him at home in Manhattan and squired him to Westchester, for a tour of the ShopRite on Tuckahoe Road in Yonkers.

For the next 90 minutes, aisle by aisle, he pointed out opportunities met and missed and the thinking behind why things are where they are in a grocery store. Among his thoughts:

Parking

“This is where the shopping experience in the supermarket starts and ends,” he says. “If I ask a man when the last time he was scared, he’d look at me funny. But if I talk to most women and ask them ‘When was the last moment you felt creeped,’ it is often in a parking lot. The shopping center industry doesn’t understand that the experience in a parking lot often defines whether someone makes the choice to shop here or not.”

Store employees, he says, should park the farthest from the store. For one, it sends passersby the message that there is something going on at the store, like the restaurateur who places his first-arriving customers in the front window. It also puts the priority where it should be: on the customer.

Soundtrack

There are demographic ebbs and flows throughout a supermarket’s day. People who shop at 11 on a Tuesday morning are not the same as those who shop at midnight Friday. The question, Underhill says, is what merchants do with this predictable data about who is shopping in their stores and when? “If I had speakers in my parking lot, I could know when to play Frank Sinatra and when to play Death Cab for Cutie,” he says.

Sensory Feast

Underhill and his colleagues call the shopping trip “the architecture of the journey,” a journey that — in the hands of a savvy manager — engages all five senses: There is music to make you nostalgic and feel welcome, lighting and sight lines and signs that draw you through the store, fruits and vegetables to touch, baked goods to smell, and free samples to taste.

Layout Tradition

Today’s supermarkets are a bit of a throwback to the Piggly Wiggly markets of the 1930s, which had their perishables — meat, fish, dairy, produce — on the perimeter of the store, where their refrigerators were close to the power supply. Milk is still at the back of most stores, a nod to tradition, but also because walking to the far corner of the store exposes a shopper to hundreds of items they didn’t intend to buy, but might if they see them.

Impulses

Step inside a store and you are met with the first series of impulse purchases: crackers for entertaining, soda for holiday parties. Grocers want to introduce a bit of doubt and then answer that doubt. “The holidays are coming and my college kids will be home. Do I want them drinking beer or pop?’ That 12-pack of Pepsi could trigger that sort of thought process,” Underhill says.

Samples

Almost every supermarket has flowers, produce and baked goods up front, he says. “That is meant to get your saliva glands going. You’re a much less disciplined shopper if you are salivating. It is also the reason they hand out samples. It’s not to get you to buy what you sample, it’s to get your salivary glands working. The best advice I give people is: ‘Never shop tired and never shop hungry.’”

Rustic

“One of the major innovations in grocery is the use of theatrical lighting in the produce section,” Underhill says. “This adjusts the color temperature over the apples or bananas or lettuce. It makes all of the stuff look better here than it will ever look in your kitchen. It’s also fundamentally about making the product the hero.”

Freshness

“Produce is a place where some of the highest profit margins are, and there’s an urgency to it, tied to freshness. Apples need to get moved in 36 hours, whereas Cheerios can sit on a shelf a lot longer,” he says.

Aroma

Smart supermarkets manage every aspect of the trip. If shoppers smell something in the store, the smell of roasting chickens wafting into the produce department, for example, it’s not by accident.

Walk down the baby-product aisle and you’ll smell talcum powder. It’s not that the seal on the bottle is loose. “There is talcum powder built into some of the packaging,” Underhill says. “There are few scents that are as evocative as ‘fresh baby.’”

Stuffing

Did you ever walk down a supermarket aisle and see an item on a shelf that has somehow migrated from another aisle? If you have, Underhill says, you’ve shopped in a store where people shop on a budget. It’s called “stuffing” and we saw it in action in that Yonkers ShopRite, in a bottle of Dove Body Wash in the chips aisle. Underhill explains that a shopper likely picked up the bottle because it was on sale, but faced a budgeting choice when he or she arrived at the chips aisle. The left-behind body wash — amid the chips — is a signpost to their budget, and their choice.

Big carts

The grocery industry has built bigger carts to get bigger sales, Underhill says, “But we know that, globally, the number of people who get no cart is going up. People realize that’s one way to limit how much they spend, by limiting it to what they can carry.”

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The author

In more than 75 interviews over the past two months, Peter D. Kramer has learned a bit about supermarkets: how they’re designed and, most important, the key role they play in their customers’ lives. His own supermarket journey has been peripatetic, taking him from Waldbaum’s in Tappan to New Hampshire to New Mexico and now to New Jersey, where the father of four has learned to bring his own bags and scan his own groceries.

5 thoughts on “Why is milk in the back?”

    1. I’m talking late 1960s. I know I was a kid, but I recall two big supermarkets right next to each other on Route 303, right near the Esso station on Oak Tree Road. That’s how far back we’re talking! My brother worked at the Esso station.

    1. Hi, Harriet: If you’re referring to the box on Thursday’s 1A, it employs an industry term for under-served areas — supermarket deserts — as in barren wastelands devoid of supermarkets. The English teacher in you can certainly appreciate the imagery, even if the box made you think otherwise. Thanks for reading. (And I hope you don’t have to shop for desserts in a supermarket desert.)

  1. I so agree with you! I always chose fmerars’ market when I can. They grow these vegetables, fruits and berries with their own hands without using any chemicals. I’m also very happy that my parents grow some vegetables and apples so I can always get something to eat from their garden.And you’re also right about the breakfast. I hate eating early in the morning. My stomach is never ready for food at 7 am. A thing that helps me to get rid of the morning sickness is a glass of water right after getting out of bed. :)ps. beautiful pictures!

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