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How Sale Prices Nudge Us Into Buying Junk Food

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Deep down, people want to buy healthy food. Unhealthy foods have a negative association, with terms like “vice foods” and “guilty pleasures.” But even well-intentioned consumers have a hard time resisting buying the unhealthy stuff when they’re on sale.

Price discounts can help consumers overcome their guilt of buying junk food, says a new study from The University of Utah. Researchers examined how price discounts or bonus quantities (like get 20 percent more for free) would affect purchase decisions. The thought was that bonus quantities often perform better, but that is not what the researchers found. The researchers found the effect depended on whether the food was healthy or not. As it turns out, people prefer a bonus quantity when buying health food, but the reverse is true for junk food, for which people prefer price discounts.

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One example in the study is about patrons who were surveyed when exiting a coffee shop. The researchers asked whether the people preferred the shop’s low-fat blueberry muffin, or its rich chocolate chip cookie, which were presented with a price discount or a bonus in quantity.

For the healthy muffins, only 54.2 percent chose to buy them when offered a discount versus 76.1 percent for the bonus quantity. Exactly the opposite choices happened for the indulgent cookies. The price discount was tempting to 69.6 percent, but the bonus quantity deterred purchases to only 47.9 percent. Experiments that followed confirmed this trend.

So why do people prefer discounts over bonus quantities for junk food? Here is their theory:

“Consumers cannot generate good justifications for buying [vice foods] with a bonus quantity since it would mean consuming more,” the authors write. “However, a price discount with a vice food can be justified as a money-saving purchase and hence it acts as a guilt-mitigating mechanism. For virtue foods, the absence of both anticipated post-consumption guilt and the resulting need to justify leads consumers to prefer bonus quantity over price discount.”

In the battle of dieting versus saving money, the bargains take the cake. So the next time you are on a diet, do yourself a favor and avoid the junk aisle altogether.

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