Answers in Grocery Carts
For the last four months, a small group of SOM students fanned out across New Haven, talking to people in supermarkets about what’s in their grocery carts. They were trying to understand how people choose the kind of food they buy and how they might be convinced to make healthier choices. This wasn’t just an exercise in curiosity. This was a joint research project with PepsiCo, Inc., which sells products in nearly 200 countries, ranging from soda and chips to Quaker oatmeal, Tropicana orange juice, Gatorade, Naked Juices, and Aquafina bottled water.
A handful of SOM students were chosen by the leadership of the Yale Center for Customer Insights, which focuses on generating observations that can form the basis of strategic marketplace decisions. The CCI often achieves this through collaborations with major corporations. The idea is to leverage the energy and experience of MBA students, as well as to challenge them to take what they’ve learned at SOM and push it way beyond the classroom.
“These are much higher-level questions than MBAs just out of school are asked,” said Ravi Dhar, the George Rogers Clark professor of marketing and the center’s director. “We’re forcing them to go beyond what we’ve taught them. The expectations are very high. It’s a discovery process at many levels for the students.”
The SOM students were tasked with developing a better understanding of the social, environmental, and psychological influences on eating habits of consumers, particularly lower-income consumers. To accomplish their objective, the students, who all earn course credit for the work, conducted more than 50 ethnographic conversations with consumers at supermarkets around New Haven. They approached single individuals, people with children, and older shoppers, trying to get a cross-section of the population. With its diverse demographic make-up, New Haven proved to be an ideal lab for studying eating and buying behaviors. Subjects were then broken down into two groups: the lower income shoppers and the control group of those with higher incomes. The students photographed the contents of their shopping carts, to add an extra layer to the data.
“Clear trends emerged,” said Adelma Lilliston ’07. “In the carts of lower-income people, there was a lack of fresh produce and fresh foods. There was a lot of processed food and very few diet or low-calorie items.”
Existing opinion argues that, in general, people with lower incomes eat more unhealthy foods than those with higher salaries because of price sensitivities and lack of access. However, after completing the first round of surveys, the students conducted more in-depth interviews to reveal a different set of purchase and consumption decisions. While they signed non-disclosure agreements limiting what they can say about their findings, they did sketch out what they learned. “We found that among lower-income subjects the aversion to diet foods, for instance, was a taste issue,” said Ann Schuster ’07. “They just didn’t think they tasted good or were as filling. But it’s also much subtler than that.”
“In the control group there was a much more nuanced understanding of issues relating to calorie counting,” said Isaac Cohen ’08. “When you see spinach in their carts, they have a general understanding of the nutrients you get out of it. In the lower-income group, one we didn’t find spinach, and two, if we found milk in their cart, their response was just that milk is good for you. With the control group, they’d say they have milk because of the calcium or because of the vitamins in it. They also almost never had whole milk, choosing skim or low-fat, while the study group almost always had it.”
The research the student team conducted yielded many insights, which were categorized in terms of what motivates individuals in making food choices. The team uncovered that people’s immediate goals and needs determined purchase and consumption behavior. The team also discovered that kids are a primary influence in household choices, as are the social pressures in communities.
Christian Far ’07 added that “the reasons for the decisions made by lower-income consumers are multi-layered,” although he wasn’t at liberty to expand on the subject.
Jonathan Weiner, Director of PepsiCo Health and Wellness Insights, said the insights have already been shared with PepsiCo's Blue Ribbon Health and Wellness Advisory Board and with Yale's Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity. The work will serve as a foundation for further study later this year. "I’m very impressed with the work they’ve done. The students have a lot of energy and focus. They realized that particular project has real social implications and rallied to do a great job. They’ve done some really interesting and thought-provoking work.”
For the students, the project has allowed them to earn credits while working almost exclusively outside the classroom. Stephanie Shambroom ’07 said it’s been a tremendous experience. “It’s been a hands-on way to apply all the things we’ve learned in the classroom,” she said. “The MBA prepared us really well to create the guidelines and the questions we asked. It provided the analytical framework. But then you go out and ask people the questions and they don’t necessarily give you the answer you are hoping to get at. That’s when the learning enters real-time, forcing you to come up with the next question that delves down deeper and really explores the subject. You’re forced to take the MBA framework and improvise. And that’s really invaluable.”