The Psychology of Supermarket Design

An Interview with Paul Harrisson

Subconsciously Shopping

How does supermarket design influence the way we shop?
Those behind supermarket design must have a deep understanding of the less obvious elements of the human character. We assume we are very rational decision-makers, when in fact we are highly influenced by our emotions, automatic responses and the external stimuli that we are exposed to.


Consumers are ‘habitual’ and do not consciously engage in the supermarket, rather, behaviors tend to be automatic. This raises an interesting dilemma for brand owners. On the one hand, they want shoppers to continue to act habitually. However, as a business how do you attract new customers by influencing behavior with external stimuli?


These automatic behaviors and goals can be influenced, for example, through a certain music type, prominently displayed food product or a PA announcement. It is human nature to look for cues to guide our decisions, including colors (red to grab attention), the word ‘special’, and positioning in supermarkets.


Is this shopping experience replicated globally? Are there any major cultural differences between consumers/designs globally?
Consumers are influenced subconsciously by emotional psychology, which does not vary drastically from continent to continent. While many elements of behavior are cultural and learned, at a high psychological level, most humans have the same basic goals.


Supermarket planning follows a rather homogenous formula globally. On the whole, supermarkets differ most prominently regionally. Although local supermarket managers may have a wealth of insight and research behind them from the central testing labs, they also benefit from intuitive knowledge about what will or won’t work for their specific market.


How does color and supermarket layout help drive consumers to make healthier decisions?
As we have already established, most purchasing decisions are not taken on a rational level. The fruit and vegetable section is a perfect illustration of tactics used to influence consumers.


Positioned at the entrance of the store, it instills a sense of well-being upon arrival. The section is set up to provide a social experience, with lots of people milling around, and an emotional connection with the product on display, in this case fruit and vegetables. Produce experts, employed by the store to work in the section, are on hand to offer advice as well as to create a social model which inspires customers to escape their usual product choice comfort zone – inspiring them to try something new.


Even something as minor as the floorcovering can have a significant influence on consumers’ willingness to buy a product in the supermarket.


How has supermarket design changed over time? What’s the influence of new, particularly mobile, technology?
It is unavoidable that mobile technology will change the way we work. However, brand owners cannot lose sight of the importance of keeping customers at the center of all decision-making.


Markets are segmented by different needs and shopping habits – take the example of the working population who regularly travel and are looking for a simple way to obtain weekly groceries. An innovative smartphone app has filled this void, giving the option for collection of shopping at the airport.


It is absolutely crucial to think about your different market segments – what makes them unique and what motivates them? It is also important to stay on top of and identify emerging consumer trends. This allows potential opportunities and risks to be identified early. Consumers are looking for a process which is as easy as possible and with minimal risks – if something goes wrong, they want to know the problem can be solved easily.


What trends will we see next? Is this psychology also applied to online supermarkets?
When compared to technology, on the whole, humans have not evolved much over the last 2,000 years! Our short-term memory is inherently flawed and we are still susceptible to social and emotional influencers.


It will be crucial for brand owners to analyze how online tools can facilitate what makes us human – meaning, taking into account human aspects first, then looking at available technology and how best it can work alongside human nature.


We will see a few emerging trends. A more flexible and convenient shopping experience will be sought by consumers; additional self-service technology will be installed in supermarkets; and clever packaging will become the norm as consumers are looking for new and exciting experiences. Packaging should emerge as a form of differentiation between products, with aesthetics key in the design process. Consumers will be looking for both utility combined with a level of brand connection delivered by product packaging in an otherwise homogenous environment. People are looking for packaging which is both beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as well as being easy to use.



On average, a counter-clockwise trip around the shop floor equates to around US$1.8 additional spend per trip. A shopping trip lasting ten minutes or less also equates to a bigger spend per minute.
A human’s short-term memory is inherently flawed leading to ‘just in case’ purchases on a whim – tins of tomatoes, chickpeas, herbs. A perfect example of consumers who are not actively engaging with the act of shopping.
The prime position on a shelf is between 10° upwards and 45° downwards from the line of sight. Positions within the center of the aisle – the natural gravitational point – and at the end of the aisle are also placement contract hot spots for big brand owners.
Framing a message in a positive manner is more impactful than a threatening message. Harrison is currently researching the effect of positive message framing on consumer choice and decision-making.



Paul Harrison is a consumer Behavior and marketing expert based at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. As a specialist in social psychology, Harrison has conducted extensive research on Consumer policy. He also advises government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on social marketing and social change programs.