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Study Shows Consumers Value Fatter Wallets Over Thinner Waistlines

Do your health goals take a back seat to your desire for a good deal? A recent study by Penn State Smeal College of Business marketing professor Karen Winterich finds that consumers will generally take advantage of "supersize" pricing, even if it means ignoring their goals to eat healthier.
March 4, 2013
Study Shows Consumers Value Fatter Wallets Over Thinner Waistlines

Karen Winterich

This article originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times on February 24, 2013.

Let’s say your New Year’s resolution this year was to decrease the amount of sugary soda you drink. But then, on a visit to your local convenience store, you realize you can get a large soda instead of a medium for just a few cents more. What do you do?

If you conveniently ignore your health goals and choose to get more bang for your buck by purchasing the larger soda, you’re in good — albeit, less healthy — company. A recent study conducted by Penn State Smeal College of Business marketing professor Karen Winterich and her colleague Kelly Haws, of Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, finds that in the face of supersize pricing, health-related goals generally take a back seat to our desire for a good deal.

According to Winterich and Haws, supersize pricing refers to the decreasing cost-per-unit as the quantity increases.

For example, you may find yourself doing calculations in the grocery store to determine if it’s a better deal to buy the 12-roll pack of toilet paper instead of the four-pack. In the case of purchases for immediate consumption, like fast food or fountain drinks, you are likely doing those same toilet paper calculations, seeking greater value even though it means you will spend more money and get more product than you originally wanted or needed. And unlike with toilet paper, you are likely to consume all that added value — in the form of extra calories — in one sitting.

“When we are faced with the decision to supersize our french fries, we are likely no longer focused only on health, but also on finances given the differential value provided by each size.”

“When we are faced with the decision to supersize our french fries, we are likely no longer focused only on health, but also on finances given the differential value provided by each size,” write the authors in their study, “When Value Trumps Health in a Supersized World,” which will be published this May in the Journal of Marketing. “Such pricing strategies not only lead to greater purchase and consumption, they do so by … decreasing the importance placed on health goals.”

The authors also demonstrate that supersized pricing, due to the increase in larger size purchases, does, in fact, lead to greater calorie consumption. Because lack of portion control was shown in separate studies to be one of the leading causes of obesity, supersize pricing of unhealthy foods — and the strong desire to bargain shop — may be having a negative impact on health and wellness.

Focus on health

There is, however, good news for consumers who want to keep their health on track. Winterich and Haws also found that situational health cues, such as posted calorie counts on menus at fast food restaurants, can keep health goals prominent in consumers’ minds.

Seeing just how many calories that large soda or order of French fries adds will remind consumers of health goals and New Year’s resolutions instead of letting them take a back seat to desire for greater value.

“Health cues can overcome the tendency to favor financial value over health in the presence of supersized pricing,” write Winterich and Haws.

Furthermore, supersize pricing can be a good thing when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Winterich and Haws found that supersized pricing also encourages upsizing of healthy foods as well as unhealthy ones.

“For healthy foods, consumers can increase their size choice without having to decrease their importance on health,” write Winterich and Haws.

In other words, go ahead and reap the financial rewards of supersizing, but instead of a giant soda, make it a giant salad.

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