Some online food shoppers make healthier choices if they are ‘nudged’

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shopping delivery

Food deliveries from online retailers may be made healthier using the power of nudges

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In a small UK trial, some 28 per cent of online food shoppers were willing to buy a healthier version of a product when they were presented with the choice, showing the power of “nudging”.

One in 5 British families now do at least some of their grocery shopping online, with many switching to supermarket websites due to the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers funded by Public Health England, an executive agency of the UK government, conducted a trial with 900 participants to see if suggesting healthier alternatives during online shops could improve diets.

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“The logic is if we can nudge the shopper at the point of purchase to slightly healthier options, that means slightly healthier options in the home,” says Suzanna Forwood at Anglia Ruskin University, UK.

Trial participants were asked to buy the 12 items on a shopping list. Whenever they put a high-calorie food into their shopping basket, they were presented with a lower-calorie alternative. These were offered if they cost roughly the same or less, and contained at least 24 fewer kilocalories per 100 grams.

The average shopper was offered three swaps, of which around 1 in 8 were accepted. Shoppers didn’t always agree to alternatives – 28 per cent of the participants accepted a swap, indicating that shoppers declined some offers but accepted others.

“People are not as willing to say yes as you think they might,” says Forwood, who says future work will explore why that is the case.

Accepted swaps reduced calorie content in the average shopping basket by around 30 calories. How the swaps were presented – whether they accentuated the health benefits or the cost benefits, or indicated that other people were making similar swaps – didn’t materially affect choices.

“The use of ‘swap offers’ is similar to persuasive techniques in the design of interfaces known as ‘nudges’, where the user is encouraged – either strongly or weakly – to consider other options that they might not have explicitly asked for or considered otherwise,” says Colin Gray at Purdue University, Indiana.

“My fear is that studies such as this are actually laying the groundwork for further optimisation of ‘dark patterns’ that manipulate and coerce, rather than inform,” he adds.

In other words, although the new study and others like it are well-intentioned, they might inadvertently encourage some firms to explore how to profit from using “nudging” to change people’s online shopping habits.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0246455

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