Half-empty supermarket shelves act like consumer magnets

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 8th April 2009

That last bottle of wine left on the shelf must be good, mustn’t it? Otherwise it wouldn’t be the only one left.

Consumer research from Wageningen in the Netherlands has discovered that half-empty shelves in the supermarket are a strong driver of sales.

Experts call this the bandwagon effect. The average consumer goes for products that are in demand, Dr Erica Van Herpen, of Market Research and Consumer Behaviour, concluded in an article published in the latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Van Herpen bases her claim on experiments in which consumers choose under controlled conditions between wine from full shelves and wine from half-empty shelves. The results are clear: supermarket customers follow the herd. Not only do they take the wine from the half-empty shelf, but they also think it is better.

Dr Van Herpen doesn’t believe that people are misled by half-empty shelves, however.

“No, why? It gives you some information to go on if you are standing in front of a shelf and you don’t know what to choose,” she noted. “You piggyback on the collective knowledge of others. Because among those others there are always one or two people who do know which wine is good.”

In any case, the effect doesn’t always apply. Not everyone is a follower.

Nor does Van Herpen think that supermarkets deliberately keep shelves a bit empty to boost demand. “No, they try to keep them as full as possible,” she said. “That looks nice. And anyway, there’s a risk attached to almost empty shelves. The demand can be so big that the product sells out, and then you get disappointed customers.”

The bandwagon effect applies much more in supermarket than other retail outlets, with the opposite effect at work for cars, shoes and clothes.