The Myth of the Grocery Shopping List

I once heard the claim that something like 94% of all Americans make shopping lists at home, before they shop.  The conclusion has often been that retailers and CPGs are almost certain to lose a sale if they don’t make it onto the list before the shopper ever walks into the store. The problem is that this assumes the list is something fixed.  That it is a set of inflexible steps and procedures, but nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, the logic is simple wrong.  I don’t dismiss the statistics about shoppers.  I do believe shoppers make lists. But I question the notion that shoppers are rarely tempted and that lists are so specific that in-store media rarely matters.

First, whether using a written list or a mental list, there is a propensity for using it to categories of items, not brands. Eggs, milk, bread, paper towels, chips, etc. are some of the typical items, but brand-specific products are decidedly rare. This isn’t to say that people don’t have favorite brands or that they don’t tend to buy the same products. They do.  But they are thinking in terms of the food stuffs, not the name or the label. Furthermore, staple items are commodities and therefore less likely to inspire brand loyalty.  They are things, not icons. An item on the list may drive shoppers to a product category but once they’re in the grocery, the opportunity to influence grows.

Second, in practice, about half the items that show up in the cart are items not on the list. Why? Because provisioning the home is about far more than simply getting food.  If it were that simple, we would all have very strict diets with very little variation. But shopping is an expression of love, play and a host of other culturally mitigated elements. If you[‘re thinking about what your wife did for your birthday the week before, you may buy something special as a way of saying thank you.  If your child slips a bag of cookies into the cart, you may turn a blind eye as a way of turning shopping into play.

So it is worth thinking about these things when considering whether or not in-store marketing makes sense.  Shopping is about far more than making it onto the list.

By Gavin

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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