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Junk food at the till: Can supermarkets be trusted to help us eat better?

Public pressure might make these giant stores reshape their design

For confirmation that human beings are rash and gullible creatures, easily led from the path of virtue, you don’t need to travel much further than the nearest Tesco. The moment a shopper enters the store, it begins; the barrage of silent marketing techniques, designed to work on a shopper’s instincts, rather than their rational mind. The smell of baking bread wafts up their nostrils, stimulating appetite; bright signs in yellow and red attract their attention, as if they were so many magpies with shopping baskets. At the checkout – when wills have already been drained by labyrinthine passage through the store – sit a range of treats (packs of Walkers, Crunchie bars, cans of Pepsi) designed to take the edge off another tough shop. And we give in. Time and again we give in.

At a cost, it seems, felt by waistlines as much as wallets. Supermarkets profit more from high-fat processed foods than fresh produce, hence the prominent placing – McVities, two packs for £1! – in their stores. Should shoppers continue to fill trolleys unthinkingly, the Government estimates that more than half of British men will be clinically obese by 2050.

Do supermarkets have any cause to worry about this? The obvious answer is no, not really. As private companies, they care first for stockholders. But in 2011 the Government convinced 150 companies, including the major supermarkets, to sign its ‘Responsibility Deal’, a series of voluntary pledges designed to tackle bugbears like alcohol abuse and obesity. “Our customers”, added a recent Tesco advert from boss Philip Clarke, “have told us they’d like help in choosing the healthy option”.

That goodwill is now under examination. A campaign launched today wants the ‘chocolate mile’ of the checkout ditched, citing a survey that shows 78 per cent of shoppers find it “annoying”, and 90 per cent believe it contributes to obesity. Exactly how ‘responsible’ supermarkets feel towards their customers will be seen in whether they agree to change, voluntarily. My guess is, with a few token adjustments, the Scylla and Charibdis of the confectionery aisle will remain in tact. Calls for the government to legislate against it seem too draconian. (Where would a law stop? Modesty bags over Reese’s Pieces?).

But Tesco could help us in other ways. Just as shoppers fall for unhealthy ‘nudge’ marketing, they can be nudged in the other direction. An experiment with cordoning off part of shopping trolleys for “fruit and veg” saw sales double in a supermarket trial. Putting mirrors in stores, so customers could catch their reflection mid cake-grab, had similarly positive results. Might Philip Clarke try these? It couldn’t hurt. Until that day though (and I don’t expect it anytime soon) remember, the siren-song in Tesco leads to junk food - and it’s totally silent.