Personal Finance

Half-Empty Supermarket Shelves Act Like Consumer Magnets

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When I was in the third grade, the school librarian gave me some advice. If I wanted a good book to read, she said, I should scan the shelves for a beat-up book with a cracked spine and pages that showed obvious signs of being thumbed through. These signs of distress meant a lot of other people had enjoyed reading it.

A similar principal is at work when people visit a supermarket and see half-empty shelves in the wine aisle. The Journal of Consumer Psychology has published a story by Dr. Erica Van Herpen at Wageningen University in the Netherlands about half-empty shelves acting like "consumer-magnets" that allow shoppers to “piggyback on the collective knowledge of others."

From an article in Australian Food News:

In supermarkets, the average consumer is attracted to products that are
in demand and more popular. Half-empty shelves imply that many shoppers
chose to purchase a particular product and that the product is in high
demand, and therefore, consumers rationalize that the product is

However, Van Herpen believes this kind of behavior doesn't apply to non-supermarket goods such as cars, clothing, and other products that help them establish a sense of individuality.

Mark Frauenfelder – Mark is the editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine and the founder of the popular Boing Boing weblog. He was an editor at Wired from 1993-1998 and the founding editor of Wired Online.

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