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
‘better’.

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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