Can unhealthy food purchases at checkout counters be discouraged by introducing healthier snacks? A real-life experiment in supermarkets in deprived urban areas in the Netherlands

BMC Public Health. 2020 Apr 21;20(1):542. doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-08608-6.


Background: The checkout area in supermarkets is an unavoidable point of purchase where impulsive food purchases are likely to be made. However, the product assortment at the checkout counters is predominantly unhealthy. The aim of this real life experiment was to investigate if unhealthy food purchases at checkout counters in supermarkets in deprived urban areas in the Netherlands can be discouraged by the introduction of the Healthy Checkout Counter (HCC). In addition, we examined customers' perceptions towards the HCC.

Methods: The HCC was an initiative of a leading supermarket chain in the Netherlands that consisted of displays with a selection of healthier snacks that were placed at the checkouts. We used a real life quasi-experimental design with 15 intervention and 9 control supermarkets. We also performed a cross-sectional customer evaluation in 3 intervention supermarkets using oral surveys to investigate customers' perceptions towards the HCC (n=134). The purchases of unhealthy and healthier snacks at checkouts were measured with sales data.

Results: During the intervention period, customers purchased on average 1.7 (SD: 0.08) unhealthy snacks per 100 customers in the intervention supermarket and 1.4 (SD: 0.10) in the control supermarket. Linear regression analyses revealed no statistically significant difference in the change during the control and intervention period of sales of unhealthy snacks between the control and intervention supermarkets (B = - 0.008, 95% CI = - 0.15 to 0.14). The average number of healthier snacks purchased was 0.2 (SD: 0.3) items per 100 customers in the intervention supermarkets during the intervention period. Of the intervention customers, 41% noticed the HCC and 80% of them were satisfied or very satisfied with the intervention.

Conclusions: This real life experiment in supermarkets showed that the placement of healthier snacks at checkouts did not lead to the substitution of unhealthy snack purchases with healthier alternatives. Although supermarket customers positively evaluated the HCC, future studies are needed to investigate other strategies to encourage healthier food purchases in supermarkets.

Keywords: Checkout counter; Food environment; Food purchases; Impulsive behavior; Purchase behavior; Snacks; Supermarkets.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Commerce*
  • Consumer Behavior*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environment Design
  • Food Preferences*
  • Humans
  • Netherlands
  • Poverty
  • Snacks*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Urban Population