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How Grocery Store Design Is Wrecking The Planet

The modern grocery store is a mass manipulation. And it’s a likely culprit for food waste being higher than ever.

At the supermarket, every soccer mom is a queen. Because even the most mundane of Super Walmart contains edibles from around the globe, some fresh, some manufactured through millions of hours of food science. There’s a whole global food economy doing our bidding.

But at the same time, we’re trapped in our own castles. The modern supermarket is a carefully engineered mental maze to make sure we buy more food. As Gregory McNamee from the Britannica blog explains:

One of the key points of that geography is that the things we need the most—bread, milk, eggs, fresh vegetables, cheese, and meat—are located by design as far as they can be from the front door, forcing the shopper to navigate the entire store just as surely as if Saunders had laid out the path himself. The dairy section in particular is almost always at the farthest possible point away from the entrance. If you are inclined toward the life-hacking equivalent of what computer hackers call "social engineering," however, you can subvert this cunning plan by entering the store and then following a course around the outer walls, steering clear of the interior. You’ll be able to pick up most of those necessities in the bargain, and get to the eggs and cheese without spending a fortune on all the less-essential goodies that lie within.

Indeed, it’s a point that Michael Pollan fans have heard again and again (as that outer ring tends to contain the least processed foods), but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. McNamee points out the tendency for stores to link the proximity of bakery sweets to alcohol and snacks to form a self-supporting triangle of sweet-boozy-salty craving. I’d never noticed that before—on my tongue, mixing cinnamon rolls and craft gin sounds beyond nauseating—then again, both experiences can leave me blissfully intoxicated.

The odd thing is, if it weren’t for obesity and food waste rates (which both hover close to 40 percent), we’d be championing grocery stores for their ingenious designs. And it makes you wonder if a sort of ethical grocery store could drive us to buy healthier food, much like Google convinces its employees to choose healthier cafeteria options.

I still remember the first time, at a Walmart, when I noticed that the checkout aisle didn’t just have candy—it had batteries and light bulbs, too. I stood there with a full cart and line behind me, knowing these couldn’t be their cheapest packs but was relieved all the same. I’d needed both.

Read more here.

[Image: Store via Shutterstock]

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  • Mark

    I work in a supermarket in Scotland and our eggs/bread/milk are all pretty near the centre of the store, its the alcohol which is at the furthest end of the store. I think that says a lot about the country that I live in...

  • t3d

    Yeah . . .  blame the store. Why not sue it too?
    I think "passing the blame" is wrecking the planet
    far more than grocery stores ever will.

  • Jeff Weidauer

    As someone who's participated heavily in store design, this article combines equal parts uninformed opinion and conspiracy paranoia. Yes, the bakery is a draw because of the smell of baked goods. But putting the dairy in the rear is a logistical compromise, not a way to get more into your cart. The average trip is 23 minutes, and retailers are better-served by making the trip easier for the shopper instead of more convoluted. Store design is a complex collection of marketing tactics, funded placement and logistical problems. Stories like this are reminiscent of the "subliminal advertising" scares of the 1960s. Nothing to see here...move along.

  • IDSprout

    I am an executive in the food industry & despite your complaining, the grocery business survives on selling groceries - not just milk and bread, which are very low margin items.  Our store layouts are no different from any other business - think Vegas casino, think car dealerships, think any brick and mortar store - by design, the traffic flows are situated to make you walk past items that we can sell you, which make profits for us.  We cannot keep the doors open just selling the basics.  Stop blaming the stores - we don't fill your carts.
    Also, making this sound like a global conspiracy is foolish - why not go after the entire retail industry?  Also, give credit to more people - tying food waste to a store layout is like tying electricity waste to companies that make lightbulbs - thin at best.
    You are nothing but a sensationalist trying to gin up support for your theory on "social engineering."  Those of us who work for a living find it quite hard to stomach at how easy people like you can criticize other businesses, but never offer anything positive - you create a false narrative and try to give it creedence with outlandish cliams - schoolyard tactics.
    Go back to researching "Google" and write more about how they force their people to live by their agenda - let the rest of us continue in our FREEDOM of choice in grocery purchases and of course in how we design our stores

  • Tom

    I have a hard time believing that the walking distance between the milk, eggs, and fresh vegetables at a grocery store is "wrecking the planet." The fresh produce is one of the first things you encounter at many grocery stores in my area.

    Also, I think it's good design to place the dairy section near the end because perishable items like milk and eggs stay refrigerated longer.

    I don't think it's fair to blame designers for issues that would still exist no matter where the departments of a grocery store are placed in a stores layout.

  • Eric Harrington

    So what is the solution(s) to these problems?  Complaining about something does nobody any good unless a better alternative is proposed.

  • Wayne Smallman

    I have a near mercenary attitude to shopping, whereby I do walk the path of least resistance, but probably wouldn't notice the out-going Pope swapping spit with a Las Vegas showgirl as I make my way towards the whole milk.

    Yes, I'm aware of the cunning arrangement of products, but my impulsive nature is constrained by need not want.

  • Jess

    Perhaps some of this layout is for ease of stocking deliveries. The outer rim is home to walk in refrigerators, meat departments and bakeries. That amount of large equipment is not efficiently moved front and center.

    Just saying, not all of these common layouts can be attributed to an industry wide conspiracy but instead to common sense from builders point of view. 

  • NZer

    This is true, I'm always tempted to buy things I come across on the way to buy milk and bread, which normally, is all I need.