Grocery shopping is often a favorite example etexplain Decision-Making theories as it lends itself rather aptly to their premise. The context – a sterile supermarket or a bustling local market? Is the place warm or cold? Is the economy developed, developing, or underdeveloped? Is the focus more on imports or homegrown produce? Like the context, the decisions involved are equally complex – what to buy, how much to buy, when to buy, and finally, who will buy. Will all groceries be bought at once from the same place, or will their purchase be spread across different shops? The need to shop for groceries emanating from the fundamental human need to satisfy hunger remains the consistent assumption among all these decisions in the given context.
Decision-making begins not just at the time of buying groceries but long before then. Norms and judgment guide human behavior. Consider you are creating your weekly grocery list and are in a bit of a dilemma about whether to add chocolate to the list. Now, Expected Utility Theory (Savage, 1950) is your normative voice, always conforming, advising you about what you should be doing. So, you listen to your normative voice and don’t end up adding chocolate to your list. Then comes your actual test. You enter the supermarket and are immediately lured towards the chocolate aisle by an attractive sign that informs you that your favorite chocolate is on offer, forcing you to make a judgment. Your voice of judgment, aka Behavioural Decision Theory (Edwards 1954), swoops in and asks you cheekily if you really want to let go of this amazing offer. And you cave in! You walk towards the coveted chocolate, and into your shopping trolley it goes!
Therefore, it could be argued that expected utility theory tends to apply more at the initial pre grocery shopping stage, and the behavioral decision theory is more applicable at the actual time of grocery shopping.
Speaking of grocery lists, does everyone make lists? Of course not. The results of a recent survey of 2000 shoppers conducted in the US by OnePoll on behalf of supermarket giant Kroger categorized shoppers into list makers and aisle wanderers. For list makers, there are various tools and processes that can be used to create a grocery list. Tools range from mental lists relying on memory, using old-fashioned pen and paper, and using a whiteboard to the tech-savvy notes apps on smartphones, not forgetting the more sophisticated grocery apps. Grocery apps are handy to organize grocery shopping, and most come with pre-programmed categories that can be amended as per the shopper’s needs. One can create multiple lists, identify, and save one’s favorites, share lists with other family members and even reorder one’s list to match the layout of one’s local shop.
Through this maneuver of decision-making theory, I have tried to round you up for the upcoming complexity – the phenomenology of grocery shopping, the experience of the physical space, and the activity. Whether indoors, outdoors, or both, local markets stimulate all the five senses, sometimes all at once. Imagine stepping into your local market. You see a variety of things on display; you also see vendors, other shoppers, and even stray animals. Just as you take in the details of what has just greeted you, a cacophony of sounds meets your ears. You can hear vendors selling their wares, customers haggling for a quick discount, music wafting in from a nearby shop. You try to locate the actual source of this music and become distinctly aware of a mixture of smells – some pleasant, others not so much. Fresh flowers, vegetables, incense sticks, cigarette smoke, beetle nut juice, and sometimes even sewage. You take it all in and proceed to your first of many stops within the market, the vegetable stall. You need to buy tomatoes, so you first check their freshness by testing how taut they feel against your touch.
You are lured by the attractive display of many other vegetables nestling within wicker baskets, so you decide to buy a few more subject to these, satisfying all your senses. In an age where eco-friendly shoppers are highly valued, you reach out for your fabric shopping bag to do your bit for the planet. The concept of carrying one’s shopping bag(s) is not new. Long before single-use plastics had their moment of infamous glory, fabric/reusable bags had already made their mark. Folks two generations ago my relied on their shopping thailis/bags. Carrying a thaili with them as they ambled along to buy the day’s groceries was an everyday image. Buying heavy groceries like kilos of rice, pulses, and flour made the use of cloth or jute bags imperative.
Going to the local market is often woven into one’s daily routine. Individuals either make it a solitary endeavor or a group exercise. The former is particularly true when one shops for groceries on their way home from work. It is not uncommon to have a reusable bag within one’s work bag for this exact purpose. The latter is demonstrated when grocery shopping is the primary reason for a group of people (could be family or friends) to step out of the house.
Groups remind me of our need for social interaction, and local markets provide an excellent setting. A study by Watson and Studdert (2006) included a comprehensive survey that identified the role of English markets as social spaces. It studied how cultural practices help sustain markets’ critical role in maintaining the social fabric. Finally, it stressed the need to support their existence keeping in mind the benefits they brought to society, including job creation, and even promoting mental health.
Reflecting upon this study, it could be generalized to an extent. Take, for example, a local market in India. Apart from haggling, customers chat with vendors, exchange news, and lament about current affairs. They also meet fellow familiar customers. Such a trip to buy groceries ends up becoming a social excursion of sorts. It’s important to mention here that it is hard not to have a favorite vendor when one frequents a local market. They will always give you fresh, reasonably priced produce. They will even be generous occasionally by giving you something for free as they trust your returning custom is entirely worth it.
Although the premise of a supermarket is very similar to that of local markets, there are obvious discrepancies that may impact the behaviors associated with grocery shopping at a supermarket as opposed to that at a local market. We are spoilt for choice by the sheer variety of groceries available. It feels like a hundred brands of the same product are vying for our attention. It is rather sensible that Choice theory (Glasser) can be called upon here to understand grocery shopping behaviors within supermarkets better.
The Pandemic has caused an immense change to grocery shopping behavior. The first one was of a very short-term nature as reflected in almost mindless panic buying, and the second was of a more long-term nature as seen in the increase of online shopping within households. The main drawback, so to speak of online shopping, is the lack of sensory stimulation. Personally, this lack of sensory stimuli makes the online grocery shopping experience rather dull and monotonous. Most online stores have a ‘favorites’ section to help one save time. Psychologists Fiske and Taylor (1981) were right when they said that “humans are cognitive misers.” Essentially, we rely on shortcuts or heuristics to facilitate cognitive decision-making. One significant difference between online and traditional grocery shopping is being privy to product reviews by other customers, which can play a role in one’s decision-making process. Also, home delivery makes the experience less strenuous, especially when buying bulky items like rice, dals, etc.
Finally, irrespective of whether one shops at local markets, supermarkets, online apps, a task one can’t avoid is storing the groceries. And just like that, one is faced with a new set of complex decisions – Do you empty packets (if at all) into plastic, steel, or ceramic containers? Do you label these containers? How do you arrange these containers in your pantry- on shelves or the kitchen counter? It is a setup. Believe me. It undoubtedly warrants an article of its own.
Author: Snehal Amembal
[HR Advisor; London School of Economics; Poetry]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team