Research Paper: Grocery Shopping Persuasion Field Work

Heather Haynsen
June 25, 2017
Grocery Shopping Field Work

Grocery shopping is one of my most stressful outings each week. My husband and I shop under the constraints of food allergies and a tight budget; we discuss every single item before it goes in our shopping cart. Due to these limiting factors along with a generally methodical nature, our purchasing behavior is fairly consistent week-to-week. We meal plan throughout the week and shop at Giant Food on Sunday afternoon, following a shopping list broken down by meal.

Our consistent purchasing behavior is based on years of central route processing, most frequently comparing ingredient lists and unit price between brands of each product. For example, we buy the one brand of taco seasoning that does not contain onion powder (to which my husband is allergic), regardless of sale prices, changes in packaging, and physical rearranging of product on store shelves.
The act of central elaborative processing the first time we needed taco seasoning resulted in our purchasing “attitudes that are more resistant to counterpersuasion, persistent over time, and predictive of future behavior” than if we could grab any similar product off the shelf (Booth-Butterfield, S. & Welbourne, J., p. 157).

Due to our allergy and budget concerns combined, I do not believe that our buying behavior is related to gender, brand, or type of product. Price is a simple peripheral cue that Giant Food accentuates with yellow “New Low Price” and blue “Sale” stickers by each item. These stickers attempt to persuade shoppers to purchase an item “simply because it was presented by an attractive source, a factor completely unrelated to the merits of the message itself (p. 158). Indeed, we often find that when calculating unit price of an item, the sale brand’s price remains higher than another brand’s regular price.

However, calculating unit price is not always the end of the central processing needed to decide whether purchasing a new item is warranted; I also compare nutritional information between brands to discern if picking up a sale item is worth my money. For example, a cheaper brand may contain more sugar and less protein than a more expensive version of the product. In this situation, I need to engage in elaborative processing to determine whether nutritional density or cost savings is currently most important.

We do always leave room in the budget for a few frivolous, more peripherally processed purchases as well. Upon first entering Giant Food, my husband heads straight for their Bake Shop to pick up whatever dessert item suits his fancy, be it a cake, tart, cheesecake, etc. I have a similar routine for breakfast baked goods, picking up a few muffins, bagels, or donuts to treat myself throughout the week. Here we may take bright “Sale” stickers into consideration, or pick up whichever item is most fresh, thoroughly enjoying “this less thoughtful route” to determining our diet (p. 159).

Despite our consistent purchasing patterns, certain factors including motivation, ability, and situational influences affect elaboration likelihood while grocery shopping. While I feel extremely motivated to purchase all our items free of allergens, on budget, and with only once per week, other shoppers with less at stake may “be less likely to engage in thoughtful evaluation” of persuasive messages encountered while shopping (p.156). However, as “personal relevance” and “accountability” partly constitute “whether persuasion will be based on message scrutiny,” all grocery shoppers should exhibit some motivational involvement in their purchases (p 159-160).

Typically, grocery purchases cannot be returned, and the purchaser must go through the intimate act of eating what they bring home. Consumers are more likely to exhibit high motivation and ability through central processing both “when a purchase decision cannot be reversed” and when the purchaser “will be held accountable for [their] decision (Bitner & Obrmiller).

As I do not believe my husband and I are typical grocery shoppers, I conducted an online survey with questions regarding their motivation, ability, and some situational aspects of the last time they purchased groceries in a physical store. Out of 36 respondents, only 6 (17%) decided to put back or otherwise not purchase an item. This reinforces the notion of high motivation and elaboration likelihood while grocery shopping.

To address ability factors, I asked survey respondents whether they were under time pressure (Y=22%), felt distracted (Y=20%), and knew where to find everything they intended to purchase (Y=76%). These answers combine with my own experience to suggest that grocery consumers overall possess the ability necessary for elaborative processing.

Situational factors are more difficult to assess. While I may have missed an issue important to others, my survey asked respondents if they utilized a shopping list (Y=61%), coupons (Y=25%), if they compared prices (Y=81%) and nutritional information (Y=45%) between different brands of a similar item, and if they made an impulse purchase (Y=86%). These responses do not tell a coherent story like the ability-focused questions, but instead show the breadth of messages available for consumers to process.

The basic elaboration likelihood assumption that “that people are bombarded with so many different persuasive communications that it is nonadaptive, if not impossible, to carefully evaluate the merits of each and every one of these attempts at persuasion,” rings true here as regardless of the messages each respondent chose to hold important, their strongest commonality lies in making an impulse purchase (Booth-Butterfield, S. & Welbourne, J., p. 156). In the case of groceries, where motivation and ability are relatively high, “peripheral cues such as location of the product in the store, or on the shelf, and packaging” abound as well, making impulse purchases difficult to avoid (Bitner & Obrmiller).

For most, grocery shopping is a necessary routine of life, and the elaborative processes we have developed to complete our task remains one step (or several) behind marketers who craft our shopping experience with innumerable persuasive communications. Their task is not simple, as each consumer comes with a unique set of situational and personal variables that respond favorably to different messages. I for one, am comfortable with my grocery shopping habits, and after conducting my small online survey, I feel more comfortable with my propensity for impulse purchases as well.
Bitner, M. J., & Obermiller, C. (1985, January 01). The Elaboration Likelihood Model: Limitations and Extensions in Marketing. Advances in Consumer Research (12), 420-425. Retrieved June 24, 2017, from

Booth-Butterfield, S. & Welbourne, J. (2002). The elaboration likelihood model: Its impact on persuasion theory and research (pp. 155-173). In J. P. Dillard & M. Pfau (eds.), The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Survey Monkey Analyze – Grocery Shopping & Perception – Research for COMSTRAT 561 (2017, June 24). Retrieved from