Why isn’t the Retail Sector doing more ‘Nudging’ of Hand Sanitisation?

Hand sanitiser stations come in many shapes and sizes.

Is anyone else thinking about Behavioural Nudges and Hand Sanitisation? If you’ve ventured to the supermarket since COVID-19 you’ve probably experienced some version of the ‘Hand Sanitiser Station’. The good, the bad and the ugly.

My experiences have ranged from the pathetic – empty bottles of disinfectant spray lurking behind the crisps – through to the terrifying – being hosed down with disinfectant by someone in a hazmat suit. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the staff in my local Aldi’s did take things very seriously during the peak of lock-down. I’m happy and grateful for that.

But I’ve got questions… Did anyone sit down and thoughtfully design this plethora of sanitising experiences, or did they ‘just happen’? Were the multitude of changes and ‘step-down’ measures planned, or did they ‘just happen’? Above all, I want to know if the ‘Masters of Nudge’ that work for the retail companies had anything to do with the hand sanitiser stations – I suspect the answer is mixed…

Behavioural Nudges and Choice Architecture. Before diving into the world of retail here’s a quick reminder of the behaviour change approach that has been christened ‘Nudge’. Nudge is based upon the the idea that people will always take the easiest option when they are presented with choices. The theory suggests that humans tend to avoid things that require too much effort; thinking included.

One of the key principles underneath Nudge is ‘Choice Architecture’. This boils down to how things are arranged. The ‘architecture’ influences the choices people make. Generally in a ‘nudge’ it will require more effort to do the ‘wrong thing’ than is required to do the ‘right thing’. Calling it ‘Choice Architecture’ adds a layer of ‘scientific credibility’.

That’s basically it. You design / control the choices people have available to them, so that the easy option is the ‘right’ one. One important point to remember is that people still have a ‘choice’. It’s just harder to do the things that the people who have designed the nudge ‘don’t want you to do’.

I’ve written about this before in, Choice Architecture; how to avoid being a ‘Meeting Lemming’ (link here). Don’t be put off by the mention of Meeting Lemmings, the principles of using ‘Nudge’ to get people to do the ‘right thing’ are the same. I should also thank Paul Taylor at this point who’s post What Face Masks Teach Us About Behaviour Change got me thinking.

Retail is full of Nudges. From what I’ve described I’m guessing it will be no surprise to hear that the retail sector uses Nudge extensively. For retail, getting you to do the ‘right thing’ means you buying their products.

If you want to get an idea of the scale of this activity search the internet for something like; ‘Top 5 Behavioural Nudges in Retail’. The results are mildly depressing. There are dozens of reports, articles and blogs that champion the Nudge activities used daily by retailers. I’m going to avoid using the phrase ‘herding people like livestock’, but there was one sentence that sums up the whole retail Nudge approach for me:

“…armed with these marketing psychology insights you can start optimising your store and increasing conversion rates one nudge at a time…”

But what about Health on the Shelf? But it’s not all bad news. The Royal Society for Public Health have thought about how the retail sector can help to tackle obesity by using Nudge. The report Health on the Shelf (link here) is a useful practical guide to what can be done in a supermarket environment to help people make healthy choices, there’s also a video. This isn’t rocket science, it’s simple stuff to help people make better choices and do the ‘right’ thing for their health.

So, why isn’t Hand Sanitisation being ‘Nudged’? I’m at a loss to understand this. The retail sector have the ‘Nudge Masters’, why haven’t they been universally deployed? I have asked around a few friends and a couple of reasons seem to surface:

  • The Nudge people are all working in the e-commerce field. That’s online shopping to the rest of us. With so much shopping being done online, the best Nudge brains are being deployed there. All trying to tackle things like the 80% shopping basket abandonment rates.
  • There’s no money in it for the retailers. Taking up floor space for people to sanitise their hands costs money. This is a space that could have been occupied by another ‘buy one, get one free’ offer (on Hot Cross Buns in September).

But surely, this is an opportunity? I think the retail sector might have missed a trick here. They could be doing their bit to nudge’ Hand Sanitisation, whilst at the same time nudging their sales. It’s all about funneling people into a queue.

Alongside my experiences at the Hand Sanitiser Stations over the last few months I’ve also done a fair bit of queuing outside shops. The objective of this queuing has been getting to the Hand Sanitiser Station, which is the entry point to the supermarket.

This is what I’m thinking… While I’m in the queue I’m a captive audience. Nothing much to do other than wait my turn. If I was a retailer I’d be thinking about how I might use this opportunity to Nudge the living daylights out of the punters. Sell them more stuff they don’t need. By the time they have got to the Hand Sanitising Station they are putty in your hands… It might also improve the levels hand sanitisation.

Of course some retailers might complain about the loss of retail floor space required to form an orderly queue. I’ve got an answer for this – create a ‘Social Distancing and Hand Sanitisation Arcade’ or something similar – outside the supermarket. Basically some sort to canopy people can queue underneath, where you can then sell them more stuff. I can’t imagine a single Local Planning Authority objecting to such a Public Health focussed initiative.

A bit of Nudge around Hand Sanitisation could generate a ‘win – win’, for public health and the retail sector (even better if it happens to be the local high street).

So. What’s the PONT?

  1. Behaviour change ‘Nudges’ work on the principle that humans will always take the easiest / least effort option when faced with choices.
  2. Choice Architecture is a way of arranging options so that it takes more effort to do the ‘wrong thing’. So people unconsciously do the ‘right thing’.
  3. The retail sector have been doing this for years. It’s worth remembering that, because sometimes, the things they ‘Nudge’ you towards aren’t in your best interest.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

1 Response

  1. Thanks Chris – great post. And I have to add I’ve seen very different set ups in medical settings too. For instance on Friday I entered our local hospital and there’s now a security guy sitting behind a table as you enter. It’s only slightly out of the way – you’d need to take 5 meters forward walk rather than turn immediately left or right.The cleansing is right in front of him. What did I choose to do? Avoid him figuring out I’d need to lean across him and so I’d just use one of the cleansers further down the hallway. I don’t think this classifies me as irresponsible it’s just an example of us taking the easiest possible option for us. The choice architecture was all wrong in this instance – it gave me the option of choosing a less effort solution.

    Credit to NHS – when you’re required to enter the actual ward. They’ve got it right

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