Category Archives: Supermarkets

Detailing and retailing

HMS Furious
The dazzle painting of HMS Furious, c. 1918. Image from A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships

A couple of weeks ago we looked at casino carpet design – a field where busy, garish graphic design is deliberately employed to repel viewers, and direct their attention somewhere else. Ben Hyde commented that deliberately unattractive “background music, lighting, seating, and color schemes in large malls” may be used to drive shoppers into the quieter surroundings of the actual stores, which certainly rings true in some cases I can think of.

On another level, though, A comment by Kenshi drew my attention to the dazzle camouflage used in the First World War, which is quite startling, in a brilliantly bold way. Roy R Behrens‘ book, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage, from the website of which I’ve borrowed these images, looks extremely interesting, and I will certainly be ordering a copy when I have the budget.

Developed in Britain by Norman Wilkinson and in the US by Everett Warner and Frederic Waugh, the dazzle techniques were intended to make “a single thing appear to be a hodgepodge of unrelated components,” as Behrens puts it in this fascinating article. The aim was that such visual disruption would cause confusion and make it difficult for the enemy to identify what kind of ship – and what size – it was from a distance, with the use of ‘reversed perspective’ in the patterning a part of this. The ship’s course – and angle to the viewer – would also be problematic to identify, with colouring including bright whites, blues and sea-green alongside black, darker blue and grey selectively helping parts of the ship to blend into the seascape, and other parts very much stand out.

Breaking the enemy’s ability to distinguish elements of the ship properly, and generally to cause distraction and make it difficult to concentrate on observation for protracted periods, were all part of this plan; painting ships with different dazzle patterning on each side made identification even harder.

Despite being likened to Cubism disdainfully by some contemporary journalists, the processes used for designing the camouflage were developed both analytically and empirically, and extensively tested before being applied to the real vessels. Nevertheless, there are certainly elements in common between dazzle techniques and parts of Picasso’s and others’ work; Behrens has written further on the interactions between Cubism, Gestalt theory and camouflage (both in nature and man-made).

From A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted ShipsFrom A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships
Left: The Mauritania in dazzle paint camouflage. Right: Those blue and white stripes are familiar to UK shoppers today. Images from A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships

Intriguingly, the right-hand image above, with the bold blue and white stripes, has something in common with an everyday livery familiar to tens of millions of British shoppers: the iconic Tesco Value branding (below), at least in its original form. I’m not suggesting an actual link, but as we will see, there is something in common in the intentions behind these disparate methods of influencing viewer behaviour.

Image from Plap man
Tesco Value Beans. Image from Plap man on Flickr.

The same Tim Harford article quoted in my recent post about defaults suggests that the “infamously ugly” Tesco Value packaging is intended as a tool to facilitate price discrimination:

The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible. The British supermarket Tesco has a “value” line of products with infamously ugly packaging, not because good designers are unavailable but because the supermarket wants to scare away customers [from the Value products] who would willingly spend more [on other brands, or Tesco's 'normal' private label products].

Whereas the dazzle camouflage was intended to confuse and disconcert the viewer, the thinking behind the Tesco Value graphics (I would love to know who designed the original style) thus appears to be to disconcert or repel certain viewers (customers) so that they pick a higher-priced alternative (usually on the shelf just above the Value items – Tesco’s planograms have thinking behind them), while allowing immediate segmentation – those customers looking for the cheapest products possible find the Value products easily.

There can’t be many retail situations where pretty much the same products can be sold successfully at two different prices on the same shelving unit just because of differing packaging graphics, but it seems to work for Tesco, in the process creating a significant meme.

Image from B3ta threadImage from Boakes
Left: a ‘Tesco Value’ tattoo, from this B3ta thread There have been many others. Right: Rich Boakes’ ‘Tesco Value’ greetings cards have been widely imitated, and could even have inspired this effort from Asda.

Updates to the Tesco Value branding in recent years have reduced the intensity of the blue stripes and brought the style closer to other supermarkets’ ‘value’ brands, which all tend to be similarly sparse (e.g. Sainsbury’s Basics, below), but the Tesco style is still the most distinctive.

Adequate biscuits

Packet switching

Sainsbury's Basics Nice biscuits, well, adequate anyway

Both Dr Tom Stafford (co-author of the fantastic Mind Hacks book & blog) and Gregor Hochmuth (creator of FlickrStorm, an improved Flickr search system) have been in touch suggesting packaging/portion sizes as a significant everyday architecture of control, (or at least an aspect of design which has a major impact on consumers’ behaviour, and can be used to change it), and pointing to articles on the work of Professor Brian Wansink, of Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab.

From the New York Times:

Dr. Wansink… probably knows more about why we put things in our mouths than anybody else. His experiments examine the cues that make us eat the way we do. The size of an ice cream scoop, the way something is packaged and whom we sit next to all influence how much we eat. His research doesn’t pave a clear path out of the obesity epidemic, but it does show the significant effect one’s eating environment has on slow and steady weight gain.

In an eight-seat lab designed to look like a cozy kitchen, Dr. Wansink offers free lunches in exchange for hard data… His research on how package size accelerates consumption led, in a roundabout way, to the popular 100-calorie bags of versions of Wheat Thins and Oreos, which are promoted for weight management. Although food companies have long used packaging and marketing techniques to get people to buy more food, Dr. Wansink predicts companies will increasingly use some of his research to help people eat less or eat better, even if it means not selling as much food. He reasons that companies will make up the difference by charging more for new packaging that might slow down consumption or that put seemingly healthful twists on existing brands. And they get to wear a halo for appearing to do their part to prevent obesity.

This bit is especially interesting to me (as an improvised-gadget kind of guy):

Dr. Wansink is particularly proud of his bottomless soup bowl, which he and some undergraduates devised with insulated tubing, plastic dinnerware and a pot of hot tomato soup rigged to keep the bowl about half full. The idea was to test which would make people stop eating: visual cues, or a feeling of fullness. People using normal soup bowls ate about nine ounces. The typical bottomless soup bowl diner ate 15 ounces. Some of those ate more than a quart, and didn’t stop until the 20-minute experiment was over.

More on that here, though sadly no pictures.

The British Psychological Society’s Digest, mentioning Wansink’s work, focuses further on the ‘visual cues’ aspect: it appears that even when the serving is larger than normal in plain sight (as opposed to a deceptive bowl), the size of the portion still does not cause people to stop when they think they’ve had enough rather than when the bowl or plate ‘tells them’ they’re finished:

In four field studies, the researchers measured the amount eaten by 379 participants, half of whom were served with a particularly large bowl or plate of food. The participants given the extra-large servings ate an average of 31 per cent more food than the control participants. But crucially, just 8 per cent of them said afterwards that they thought they’d eaten any more than they would usually do. When told they’d been given an extra-large portion, 21 per cent continued to deny they’d eaten any more than usual, and of those who accepted they had eaten more than usual, only 4 per cent attributed this to the large plate or bowl their food had come in, with most others saying they’d eaten so much because they were hungry.

“This hesitancy to acknowledge one being influenced by an external cue is common and has even been found when people are presented with tangible evidence of their bias”, the researchers said… “Altering one’s immediate environment to make it less conducive to overeating can help us lose weight in a way that does not necessitate the discipline of dieting or the governance of another person”.

Of course, there are some other aspects to consider. There is certainly a tendency to eat what’s put in front of you because it’s perceived as bad manners not to, and there’s the extra tendency to try to ‘please’ the person running the experiment, but both of those assume that the participant realises there is more food than he or she would normally eat. Yet the above findings suggest that people genuinely don’t know how much they’ve eaten (relative to a ‘normal’ serving).

Morrisons Peaches and Sainsbury's Mango Puree

Implications for designers

The simplistic implication is that people will eat what they’re given. If you make the packet size 20% larger, people will (probably) eat 20% more in one sitting. If Burtons made Wagon Wheels a little smaller each year (that’s a UK reference, but I’m sure there are equally well-known versions of the idea worldwide), it will take a while before anyone notices that the portion is smaller.

But there are clearly limits to this, or at least a point where the consumer consciously thinks either “hang on, I’d better not eat all that in one go,” or “that wasn’t enough – I’ll have another one.” We all know this experience. Looking at the photo above, I’d happily eat two of those little tins of peaches in one go, but I’ve never got round to opening that big tin of mango purée as I can’t see that I’d eat it all in one go (if I were with someone else, I might share it).

Between those upper and lower bounds, though (which of course will differ from culture to culture, and person to person), there must be a size range within which changes are either not noticed by the consumer, or not cared about enough to cause any change in behaviour:

Number of portions required to feel full versus portion size
I’ve no real evidence for this, of course, other than my own perceptions and a general inspiration by the Wansink quotes above, but the central section of the graph, at least, seems fairly clear. For smaller and larger portions, the amount a consumer would eat at a sitting (to feel ‘full’) could either also be constant (over another interval) or have some proportionality to size, depending on the context. For example, if the package/portions in question were something easily re-sealable, or easy to store, a consumer might eat from it proportionally to size, perhaps opening it again at different times, but if the package pretty much has to be eaten all in one go, or shared, to avoid spoilage, then the relationship might be a constant.

So, if this model holds, a packaging/portion size reduction from the upper bound of the central interval to the lower bound may actually not affect the consumer’s behaviour. If he or she is used to eating the whole packet in one go, he or she will still eat the whole packet in one go, and still feel ‘full’ to the same extent. Thus, reducing packaging/portion sizes within a certain range (the most common sizes, probably) is a sensible way of gradually, subtly, reducing people’s food intake (equally, raising them within the range would have the opposite effect, again without consumers noticing so much).

This is not too dissimilar from the phenomenon of unit bias, of course – “Consumption norms promote both the tendency to complete eating a unit and the idea that a single unit is the proper portion“, but it’s important to remember the ‘within a certain range’ qualification. A tiny bowl of soup, despite being a ‘unit’, will not fool anyone.

One question which does arise from thinking about packaging and portion sizes is to what extent established sizes (weights, volumes) have affected consumers’ habits. Is it coincidence that, say, a typical bag of crisps (potato chips) in the UK used to be 1 oz (around 28g), and that that’s about the portion that most people ate in one go? In the last ten years though, cheaper brands have reduced to 25g or less, and premium brands escalated up to 38g or 45g – and yet still people eat one packet at a time, even when it may be almost double the weight of another. When the default size of spirit measures in pubs has gradually risen from 25 ml (down from 1 fl oz previously?) up to 35 ml or even doubles (50 ml) unless the customer specifies otherwise, this must have an effect on consumers’ behaviour. Most people do not spend double the time drinking a 50 ml measure that they do a 25 ml measure. They drink it in perhaps a few seconds longer, yet have imbibed double the amount of alcohol. (Equally, the shape of glasses affects perceptions of liquid quantity – more of Prof Wansink’s research.)

Hence, this choice of default can have a major effect on behaviour, and is surely a powerful control technique in itself, as an anonymous commenter on a previous post explained very well.

McVitie's Digestives forcing function McVitie's Digestives forcing function

We’ve looked in some detail before at packaging designed to increase consumption of the product, such as (perhaps) the McVitie’s packet shown above, where in practice the first five biscuits will often be eaten by the person who opens the packet, since the tear-strip is positioned so far down. Odd sized portions were a significant point of comment here – dishwasher & washing machine tablets, increase in standard wine glass sizes, Actimel bottles and large yoghourt pots were all mentioned as being in this category.

To some extent, then, the sizing of packaging and portions ought to be considered a forcing function alongside more obvious physical behaviour-shaping constraints. It could, in fact, be a very important way of promoting (forcing?) healthier eating.

(Incidentally, there’s a fascinating discussion here between Prof. Wansink and Berkeley’s Prof. Seth Roberts on ‘cool data’, i.e. designing and planning experiments and studies to attract maximum attention and interest whilst still being scientifically worthwhile. Wansink seems to have mastered that without descending into pseudoscience.)

(P.S. My apologies to both Tom and Gregor for the delay in posting about this)

The fight back: loyalty card subversion

J Sainsbury, Colliers Wood. This photo's been used before on the blog

It’s inevitable that for every attempt to cajole or impose control on users, there will be some people who seek to avoid or circumvent it. As Crosbie Fitch put it in a recent comment, “humans are designed to explore the parameters of their environment and to adapt to them”.

Supermarket loyalty cards are an interesting example of this. Whilst not a rigid method of control – more a method of persuasion – their ubiquity and fairly clear agenda make them common target for intentional avoidance, or subversion. For every person who hasn’t signed up out of just-not-being-bothered, there is probably at least one who doesn’t trust what will happen to his or her data, even if it’s only a vague feeling of unease. And there is a small segment of customers who will (admirably) attempt to manipulate the system, either for their own gain, or simply out of an inquisitive or rebellious spirit.

Image from Cockeyed.comImage from

Rob Cockerham’s ‘Ultimate Shopper’ is one of the most famous (and apparently successful) ‘white hat’ attempts to subvert a loyalty card system: Rob replicated the barcode (scanned by the cashier) from his Safeway Club card, and sent out dozens of copies of it to friends and readers of his website, with the aim of creating an ‘interesting’ customer profile on Safeway’s system: one who bought vast quantities of products each month, right across the country:

I want to take the credit for all of my shopping, and for your shopping too!

Anyone who does this will be lumping their shopping data together with mine. Together we might amass a profile of the single greatest shopper in the history of mankind.

You will still get club card savings, but you will miss out on the odd promotions they have from time to time. Actually, some promotions are awarded at the register, so you may continue to benefit from those, although the rewards will be utterly unpredictable.

Actually cloning the data on the magnetic strip, to create a more foolproof (and less detectable) set of cloned cards, would be another step. Depending on the structure of the supermarket’s loyalty scheme, there may well be thresholds above which the ‘rewards’ for customers increase substantially, and assuming the participants in the cloning scheme can work out a fair or acceptable way to share their rewards, this could mean greater benefits for all of them than actually using their cards individually.

An alternative scheme is Rob Carlson’s ‘Giant BonusCard Swap Meet‘ where card-holders from Giant (“a large supermarket chain in the Baltimore/DC area”) swap details with other card-holders in order to give themselves more privacy – from a 2003 article:

Carlson’s site works like this: You enter your Giant card number on a form. It puts this number into a pool of numbers gathered from participants. Drawing from this pool, it displays for each visitor a bar-code replica of someone else’s number, allowing the visitor to print it out and tape onto his or her own card. Should you actually take the time to do this and then visit the local Giant to use this card, you are, to Giant, someone else. If enough people do this, the argument goes, Giant’s shopper profiles are rendered muddied and ultimately useless.

A Wired article from 2003 on Rob Cockerham and Rob Carlson’s projects.

Are there other similar examples?

Continue reading

Review: We Know What You Want by Martin Howard

A couple of weeks ago, Martin Howard sent me details of his blog, How They Change Your Mind and book, We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind, published last year by Disinformation. You can review the blog for yourselves – it has some fascinating details on product placement, paid news segments, astroturfing and other attempts to manipulate public opinion for political and commercial reasons, including “10 disturbing trends in subliminal persuasion” – but I’ve been reading the book, and there are some interesting ‘architectures of control’ examples:

Supermarket layouts

We’ve seen before some of the tricks used by stores to encourage customers to spend longer in certain aisles and direct them to certain products, but Howard’s book goes into more detail on this, including a couple of telling quotes:

“About 80 percent of consumer choices are made in store and 60 percent of those are impulse purchases.”
Herb Meyers, CEO Gerstman + Meyers, NY

“We want you to get lost.”
Tim Magill, designer, Mall of America

Planograms, the designed layout and positioning of products within stores for optimum sales, are discussed, with the observation that (more expensive) breakfast cereals, toys and sweets are often placed at children’s eye level specifically to make the most of ‘pester power’; aromas designed to induce “appropriate moods” are often used, along with muzak with its tempo deliberately set to encourage or discourage customers’ prolonged browsing. There’s also a mention of stores deliberately rearranging their layouts to force customers to walk around more trying to find their intended purchases, thus being exposed to more product lines:

“Some stores actually switch the layout every six months to intentionally confuse shoppers.”

The book also refers readers to a detailed examination of supermarket tactics produced by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group in Ontario, The Supermarket Tour [PDF] which I’ll be reading and reporting on in due course. It looks to have an in-depth analysis of psychological and physical design techniques for manipulating customers’ behaviour.

Monopolistic behaviour

Howard looks at the exploitation of ‘customers’ caught up in mass-crowds or enclosed systems, such as people visiting concerts or sports where they cannot easily leave the stadium or arena or have time, space or quiet to think for themselves, and are thus especially susceptible to subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) advertising and manipulation of their behaviour, even down to being forced into paying through the nose for food or drink thanks to a monopoly (‘stadium pouring rights’):

“One stadium even hindered fans from drinking [free] water by designing their stadium without water fountains. A citizens’ protest pressured the management into having them installed.”


The ‘remote nervous system manipulation’ patents of Hendricus Loos (which I previously mentioned here and here, having first come across them back in 2001) are explained together with a whole range of other patents detailing methods of controlling individuals’ behaviour, from the more sinister, e.g. remotely altering brain waves (PDF link, Robert G Malech, 1976) to the merely irritating (methods for hijacking users’ browsers and remotely changing the function of commands – Brian Shuster, 2002/5) and even a Samsung patent (1995) which involves using a TV’s built-in on-screen display to show adverts for a few seconds when the user tries to switch the TV off.

A number of these patents are worth further investigation, and I will attempt to do so at some point.

The book itself

We Know What You Want is a quick, concise, informative read with major use of magazine/instructional-style graphics to draw issues out of the text. It was apparently written to act as a more visual companion volume to Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion, which I haven’t (yet) read, so I can’t comment on how well that relationship works. But it’s an interesting survey of some of the techniques used to persuade and manipulate in retailing, media, online and in social situations. It’s easy to dip into at random, and the wide-ranging diversity of practices and techniques covered (from cults to music marketing, Dale Carnegie to MLM) somehow reminds me of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, even if the design and format of this book (with its orange-and-black colour scheme and extensive clipart) is completely different.

I’ll end on a stand-out quote from the book, originally applied to PR but appropriate to the whole field of manipulating behaviour:

“It is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”
Edward Bernays

Spiked: When did ‘hanging around’ become a social problem?

A playground somewhere near the Barbican, London. Note the sinister 'D37IL' nameplate on the engine

Josie Appleton, at the always-interesting Spiked, takes a look at the increasing systemic hostility towards ‘young people in public places’ in the UK: ‘When did ‘hanging around’ become a social problem?’

As well as the Mosquito, much covered on this site (all posts; try out high frequency sounds for yourself), the article mentions the use of certain music publicly broadcast for the same ‘dispersal’ purpose:
Continue reading

Forcing functions designed to increase product consumption

McVitie's Digestives packaging: a forcing function

A few days ago, Tim Quinn of Dangerous Curve posted an interesting observation on the Simple Control in Products page:

“This may not be what you had in mind, but I immediately thought of such things as toothpaste pumps that ‘meter’ use to insure the product will be used up quickly at a rate higher than needed. That made me think of the older method of training consumers to over-use. Typified, once again, by toothpaste, with ads which show a brush topped by a generous glop of paste that is far more than necessary to do the job. This strays a bit more from your topic but it could fall under the design for control heading.”

This is definitely a phenomenon worth exploring further, since it’s part of our everyday experience, right under our noses, yet we may not be conscious of it. It’s at the intersection of advertising, marketing and product design, with particular applicability to fast-moving consumer goods. Continue reading