CVS Health’s Attempt to Harness Behavioral Science

CVS Health’s Attempt to Harness Behavioral Science

By: Emily von Hoffman

Earlier this month, CVS Health unveiled the next phase in its brand transformation—in about 500 stores, the company will employ a floor design that places more focus on ‘healthy’ food items. A large part of the design will entail placing healthier items near the cash registers, an area that is often a junk food labyrinth to challenge even the most determined of dieters. Items that used to swarm customers as they waited in line will now be relegated to more remote locations in the store, theoretically requiring more effort to purchase.

This move may allow the company to experiment with several established behavioral nudges. One factor at play in most store checkout lines is an element of captivity; people may not actively crave an item they pick up on their way out, they may just find themselves caught between boredom and extremely persuasive marketing. These are the perfect conditions for unplanned purchases, in which people may buy a candy bar or other sugary item they do not intend to consume as a meal substitute. The result: far too many discretionary calories spent on non-nutritious items in between meals. The theory behind moving unhealthy items to the back of the store, then, is that it may prevent these unplanned purchases, i.e., the only people who leave the store with Oreos will be those who were truly determined to buy them.

One criticism the company may face is not new for those interested in marketing themselves as healthful. CVS will in part rely on food items’ own marketing to determine whether or not they qualify as healthy: KIND bars, for example, are one of the snacks that will receive front-of-store promotion. This comes after the Food and Drug Administration’s pointed letter to the manufacturer of the bars that they do not deserve the ‘healthy’ label, according to the new dietary guidelines.

The marketing of food items has been shown to be very important for consumption behavior: health claims on packaging can create a “health halo,” which leads to a lower perceived calorie intake but higher consumption. While an extremely effective marketing tool, it extremely misleading for customers with less than an elite level of nutrition knowledge. Here at BECR, we use principles of behavioral economics to nudge consumers in a healthier direction. We have established retail partnerships and are working to nudge consumers to purchases that are viewed healthy by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. We plan to implement field experiments with retail partners who are also interested in encouraging customers to make healthier choices. We particularly aim to reach low income customers, since these individuals may believe they cannot afford a healthy diet. Reports from the USDA suggest that there are ways to buy fresh items—even with a fixed income..

CVS Health’s earlier moves to stop selling tobacco products seemed truly motivated by an interest in improving public health (and also maximizing CVS’ far more profitable pharmacy services segment). If CVS proves to have led the charge for other industry giants to also stop selling tobacco products, it could have an actual impact on tobacco consumption. A gesture to improve customers’ diet quality, if not substantiated with actually healthy food items, would be a major missed opportunity.



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