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Testing the effects of food product placement changes on customers’ intended product purchases: an experimental trial in a virtual supermarket setting

Title: Testing the effects of food product placement changes on customers’ intended product purchases: an experimental trial in a virtual supermarket setting

Principal Investigators: Professor Janis Baird and Dr Christina Vogel

Team members: Professor Janis Baird (Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology, Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton) Dr Christina Vogel (Principal Research Fellow in Public Health Nutrition, MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton) Dr Sarah Crozier (Senior Statistician, Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton). Professor Marcus Munafo (Professor of Biological Psychology, MRC, University of Bristol) and Dr Olivia Maynard (Lecturer in Experimental Psychology, MRC, University of Bristol), Ravita Taheem, (Southampton City Council, Sure Start Children’s Centres)

Start: 1 October 2019
Ends: 30 November 2020

Project Partners: University of Southampton, University of Bristol, Southampton City Council, Sure Start Children’s Centres

 Sure start

Lay summary
Poor diet is linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Most adults in England consume too much salt, saturated fat and free sugar, and do not eat the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables. People with lower education and income levels are more likely to have poor diet and to experience health problems as a result. Women of childbearing age are primarily responsible for domestic food tasks such as shopping and cooking, and their diets are closely linked to those of their children. Most families buy their food from supermarkets and their food choices can be influenced by placement of items in-store and by promotions.

We want to find out how the placement and packaging of healthy and unhealthy foods influence the foods that women choose to buy. We will do this by creating a ‘virtual’ supermarket layout that participants will interact with on a computer screen. We will recruit women attending Sure Start Children’s Centres in Hampshire – a county with some relatively deprived areas within the Wessex region. We will choose centres located in areas of higher deprivation. Local data suggests that 70% of families with young children are engaged with these centres.

Women using the virtual supermarket will be shown images of healthy and unhealthy foods and non-food items that are placed in noticeable locations in the supermarket like checkouts. We will measure what aspects of the images women look at using experimental techniques such as eye tracking, which records their gaze point, and heat-mapping which records where women click on the screen and then creates a graph to show their areas of interest. The eye tracker is positioned close to the computer screen allowing it to record where women look. We will then ask women to tell us the products that they saw for sale, the name of the products they considered purchasing, and aspects of the supermarket that took their interest, and why. Our findings will tell us how people respond to the placement and packaging of different types of food products. These findings help us to design ways to layout supermarkets to help families eat more healthy foods. 

Our research will begin in October 2019 and end in late 2020. We will share the findings from our study with local families attending Sure Start Children’s Centres. We will inform local and national government employees about our findings which could help to refine current government policies to address childhood obesity.