March 7, 2013

The Art and Science of Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Anne Palmer

Anne Palmer

Program Director

Food Communities & Public Health Program

More than ever, grocery shopping requires high-caliber strategy. Traversing today’s supermarkets with the goal of healthy eating—on a budget—is indeed an act involving shrewd calculations and Machiavellian decision-making.  It means you must ignore the vast quantities of food that are made attractive with sales and flashy marketing, to say nothing of how tasty they are (and how much your children beg you to buy them). All in pursuit of “healthy eating.” With the average market containing close to 50,000 foods to choose from, it is no wonder people are exhausted.

In our recently published paper, we asked low-income families about how they ate, cooked and shopped for their families, and how they thought that supermarkets could make it easier for them to make healthier food choices. From 33 in-depth interviews and three focus groups, we found that external and internal factors shape shoppers’ decisions. While our research participants consistently understood and valued healthy eating concepts, their purchases did not reflect what they valued.

Not surprisingly, people were most concerned about being able to provide sufficient quantity of food for their families and still stay within their budget. In other words, keeping hunger at bay was the Number One concern. But there were other concerns as well, such as food spoilage, the cost of travel to the stores, and food waste that results from trying new foods that are then rejected by family members. These concerns translated to strategies such as comparing sale papers, deciding if the additional travel cost is worth the price differential, using coupons, watching for sales and promotions, buying in bulk when possible, shopping at several stores but also calculating the cost of returning items in the event they spoil early, selecting non-perishables, and limiting purchases to familiar foods. All this happens before shoppers walk in the door.

Once shoppers get to the store, other factors drive their purchases. Some factors that make healthy food purchases difficult include uneven quality of produce, labeling that focused exclusively on price (rather than any health attributes), and prominent displays of snack foods throughout the store. How the store is constructed, from which items warrant eye level position, to sales promotions, affect whether or not certain products are frequently purchased. Our findings are not uncommon (irene), especially if a store is located in a low-income neighborhood.  Supermarkets’ low profit margin mean they rely on impulse buys and encourage shoppers to make the most of their dollars—regardless of the food quality.

These findings all factored into designing our nine-month intervention that recently ended. Our intervention store incorporated healthy food labeling, renovated the produce section, dropped prices of healthy food, and created displays of healthy snacks.  These changes also reflect the storeowner’s desire to create a higher quality shopping experience.  We are still in the process of measuring the results. When we finish that analysis, we’ll know if the intervention was successful.

All this begs the question—can shoppers shop their way into healthier eating?  No. Interventions alone won’t solve this problem.  We have created a structural environment that supports the purchase of lots of food without regard for the quality of that food.  Supermarkets are in the business of making money, not supporting healthy eating.  Yes, change will rely on individuals—some of those individuals head multimillion-dollar food corporations, and some of them are families working two jobs to enable them to feed their families. Why do we make it so hard?


  1. Saw notice of your article on the comfood blog. Very timely research! I am doing work on developing food waste reduction strategies — your research could be helpful there as well.

  2. Due poverty,people buy quantitatively rather than qualitatively to make their berries full but some buy poor nutrition food due to ignorance,therefore is a great need to create awareness.

    Thanks for your findings,we will use your data as a tool to sensitize the masses in our local community,add me to your team

    Professional food security fellow

  3. Posted by Jesse

    I noticed at my local grocery store that even the produce section includes a display of Easter candy. Not to mention that advertisers (I’m thinking specifically that gelled fruit ad) are even overtly advertising for kids to use the whine factor to beg for snacks at the store. It’s a tough venue.

    On the other hand, I also notice that I am about the only parent who maintains a conversation with my child about purchasing decisions while we shop together. He’s admittedly quite small (not yet 3), but I find that he is a savvy shopper in training and I credit talking to him as the main reason why.

  4. Pingback: “Understanding Grocery Purchasing” paper published | Community Market Conversion

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