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.

How Grocery Store Design Is Wrecking The Planet

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.

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[Image: Store via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.