It's not just sweets at the checkout that supermarkets use to fool us

They’re mostly well-known tricks but that doesn’t stop us being taken in
  • @cmaume

If sugar is the new tobacco, then it’s good to see that Tesco will no longer be stocking sweets at the check-outs of their Metro and Express stores – though you have to wonder why they’ve been there at all given that the company ended the practice at their main stores 20 years ago. What took them so long?

Earlier this year Lidl began doing the same, while Sainsbury’s and the Co-op announced something similar a while back (though not at the smaller Sainsbury’s shops). I was tickled by Marks and Spencer’s policy: they don’t have confectionery at their check-outs that has packaging “with characters or designs likely to appeal to children”. I’ve yet to see a sweet-wrapper that doesn’t appeal to children.

Though I hesitate to suggest that Tesco don’t give a flying Fudge bar for the national waistline, at the heart of their decision is a simple and pragmatic calculation: they might be losing a tranche of revenue but will surely hope that taking the moral high ground will help them claw it back elsewhere. Their market research found that 65 per cent of shoppers wanted confectionery removed from check-outs to help them make healthier choices. Keep the customers satisfied and they’ll keep coming back.

That this has all been done on a voluntary basis, without governmental coercion, is surely a good thing. Now, perhaps, supermarkets might like to bid a fond farewell to all the underhand psychological tricks they employ to get us to buy stuff we don’t need.

They’re mostly well-known but that doesn’t stop us being taken in: putting staples like milk at the back of the shop so we have to traipse past everything else to get to them; arranging the nice-but-bad stuff at eye level (sugary cereals are usually lower down, to suit the younger eyeline); using red stickers, which suggest price cuts even if there are none; having bigger trolleys, which research has shown makes us buy more.

There’s a ploy Which? uncovered: “In Morrisons, there was a small fridge of bacon near bread and soup,” a Which? spokesman reported. “This seemed an illogical place to put bacon, but whether it was by accident or design, our shopper still bought it. Having already looked at the bread, she was half way to a bacon sandwich.”

I don’t think there’s any chance whatsoever that supermarkets might be persuaded to drop this kind of stunt – which is perhaps why selling techniques should be regulated. I can see how bad an election slogan this would be – “We need more government!” – but it might help prevent abuses such as the ongoing controversy over Fifa 14 player packs, which children can acquire as part of the computer game without realising that they’re spending their parents’ money.

A friend of my son’s racked up a £250 bill – though he’s a rank amateur compared to the child of the poor mother on BBC’s Watchdog programme on Wednesday who was stung for £1,500. There’s no warning message asking for permission to purchase and no password needed. It seems to me that the system is specifically geared to allow children to spend their parents’ money without proper checks or controls. Fifa’s get-out is that it’s all in the small print – for which response, shame on them.

The fact is, even taking Tesco’s commendable decision into account, if we don’t want, as consumers, to be taken for fools, then we need to legislate, nanny state or not. Tesco and the others may seem to have our best interests at heart, but in the end they’re only interested in the bottom line.