Why are candy, chips, and cookies in the checkout aisle of just about every store—even ones that don't typically sell food?

By Sally Kuzemchak
August 02, 2016
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Kid Reaching for Candy at the Grocery Store
Credit: Shutterstock

Have you noticed this strange phenomenon: You're standing in line to buy pillowcases or craft supplies or jeans for your kids or even a new lawnmower, and you're bombarded with a mountain of candy, gum, and junk food in the checkout aisle?

Sure, this is standard procedure at most grocery stores. For ages, the supermarket checkout lanes have been the spot for impulse candy purchases—and epic meltdowns by kids begging for treats. But recently, junk food is popping up at all kinds of stores, including ones that don't otherwise even sell food. What's the deal?

It's not your imagination, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer watchdog group. In a field study they did of the D.C. metropolitan area, the majority of non-food stores (86 percent!) sold food, beverages, or both at checkout—and 90 percent of that was unhealthy. The most commonly stocked checkout items were candy, gum, energy bars, chips, cookies, soda, and other sugary drinks.

Turns out, manufacturers pay stores to place their foods in checkout aisles—and that can result in big sales, usually ones the customers weren't planning to make, says CSPI's report Temptation at Checkout. After all, you can't avoid the checkout aisle when you're shopping like you can the snack food aisle. You and your kids may be stuck there for minutes on end, just staring at the candy and cookies, and researchers say simply being near a food can increase your desire for it.

According to the report, researchers have also found that customers may be more vulnerable to impulse purchases at the checkout because they're worn-out from the "decision fatigue" of shopping itself—and more likely to grab something they didn't intend to buy. That kind of fatigue may also make parents more likely to give in to their kids' pestering. In one UK study, 83 percent of parents said their kids pestered them about sweets in the checkout—and 75 percent admitted they'd given in at least once.

Considering that two-thirds of adults and one-third of kids are obese in the U.S., making changes to checkouts just makes sense for public health. Wouldn't it be nice if stores encouraged impulse buys of fresh fruit instead of candy and bottled water instead of soda? CSPI is encouraging more stores to switch to healthier checkouts, with foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, unsweetened applesauce, nuts and seeds, hummus and peanut butter, and water and seltzer available there. Though no major U.S. retailer has adopted the idea yet, three UK grocery chains have eliminated candy in the checkout aisles and there have been pilot projects here that have shown promise.

What can you do in the meantime? You can tell your favorite retailers how you feel via social media. You can also sign CSPI's letter to Bed Bath & Beyond urging them to get rid of junk in the checkout. And most importantly, you can avoid buying those junk food items in the checkout, if you aren't already. If consumers don't buy them, there's less incentive for stores to stock them.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.