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Buyer Beware

How do supermarket shopppers react when you place foreign objects in their baskets? Gaylord Fields experiments.

By Gaylord Fields | Issue #21

Several recently published studies conclude that supermarkets are geared to lull the average shopper into a trancelike state and that this glassy-eyed mesmerization makes the customer purchase more goods. This comes as no surprise to this writer, as these results parallel my findings of thirty years ago when I undertook several experiments in social psychology under the guise of adolescent pranksterism.

The time: the early 1970s. The place: a typical Upper West Side of Manhattan supermarket, which, for those unacquainted with New York City commercial real estate, took up approximately the same square footage as the produce section of a typical modern-day American megamarket. The researchers: initially a trio of bored 13-year-olds, later pared to one nascent social scientist and scores of anonymous shoppers and checkout clerks, to whom I offer belated and collective thanks.


During our initial forays into the local supermarkets of choice, we gauged the level of cooperation of our host sites. In plainer language, my cohorts and I were determining what we could get away with under the vigilant eye of the ubiquitous convex mirror (this is pre-surveillance-camera 1973). This mostly consisted of such activities as jamming our pockets full of a name-brand caramel candy and placing rolls of bathroom tissue in freezer cases. We attracted little attention from the busy shoppers or even (make that especially) from the store management, and in the process developed the sangfroid, dexterity, and stealth needed for the successful completion of our operation.


For this part of the experiment, my colleagues' participation was no longer necessary, because if any member of our group were to be perceived as a member of a band of teenage males, we would attract unwanted attention. This science-minded young adult would have to go it alone. For it is here that the experiment commences in earnest, and I will link my findings with the studies of those who followed me, as briefly cited in paragraph one.

The experiment was simply designed: It would involve the surreptitious placement of various individual supermarket goods in the hand basket or cart of a targeted shopper (the "subject") by the experimenter, namely, this writer. I would then follow the subject to a position directly behind him or her in the checkout line and observe whether he or she completed the shopping transaction by purchasing the introduced foreign product (the "item").

As we scientists are merely human, I can now admit to having breached protocol a bit to speculate as to what results I would find. I presumed that the fewer goods in the basket, the more likely the subject would be to reject the item. I also presumed a similar correlation between the unusualness of the item and its rejection. Thus, my initial thought was to play it close to the vest by introducing leading brands--a box of Tide-brand detergent or Ritz-brand snack crackers--into heavily laden carts. Expecting to be emboldened by some degree of success (the purchase of the item by the subject), I would then, over a period of time, increase the risk of discovery: More unusual items, such as a packet of Airwick-brand room deodorizers or Knorr-brand chicken bouillon cubes, would be introduced into a basket holding a scant four or five goods.


In approximately one year of trials, run on an average of twice a week, not one subject rejected the item, or even regarded it strangely; all items were purchased without question. It mattered not one iota whether it was an incredibly commonplace and ubiquitous item, such as a roll of Scott-brand bathroom tissue, or a more arcane item, such as a meat thermometer. Forty items or four, the compliance rate was an astounding 100 percent! Everyone bought what was put in the basket without even a second's hesitation.

Unfortunately, my teen foray into the social sciences was curtailed by a variety of factors, namely the overwhelmingly one-sided data collected, the distractions of an increasingly challenging high-school curriculum, and my awakening to the fact that I could have introduced a yelping schnauzer and her litter of suckling pups into a subject's cart without notice. But foremost was the knowledge that if my experiments were to be discovered by those who might refuse to understand the gravity of my mission, I would soon cease to have the protection of my juvenile status guaranteed by the laws of the State of New York once I reached the age of 18. I await phase three of my experiment, to commence sometime after the year 2030, when this writer's presumed senescence will be the cloak under which to resume operation, and there will be an even wider palette of items to foist upon a new generation of shoppers.