The PJ Tatler

Mildly Creepy Behavior Control From Your...Grocer

Yes, they’re judging you.

Then he looked down at his grocery cart and felt quite a different tug. Inside the front of the buggy, hooked onto its red steel frame, was a mirror. It stretched nearly a foot across, and as Mr. Pulido gripped the cart a little more tightly, it filled with the reflection of his startled face.

The sight was meant to be a splash of reality in the otherwise anonymous la-la land of food shopping, a reminder of who he was, how he looked and perhaps what he had come in for. And if the spell cast by the store wasn’t entirely broken, it seemed to have lost at least some of its grip.

“I’m looking at myself, and thinking, ‘O.K., now what?’ ” he said.

The mirror is part of an effort to get Americans to change their eating habits, by two social scientists outmaneuvering the processed-food giants on their own turf, using their own tricks: the distracting little nudges and cues that confront a supermarket shopper at every turn. The researchers, like many government agencies and healthy-food advocates these days, are out to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. But instead of preaching about diabetes or slapping taxes on junk food, they gently prod shoppers — so gently, in fact, that it’s hard to believe the results.

In one early test at a store in Virginia, grocery carts carried a strip of yellow duct tape that divided the baskets neatly in half; a flier instructed shoppers to put their fruits and vegetables in the front half of the cart. Average produce sales per customer jumped to $8.85 from $3.99.

Here in El Paso a few months ago, the researchers focused on the floor, laying down large plastic mats bearing huge green arrows that pointed shoppers to the produce aisle. The outcome surprised no one more than the grocer.

Yes, I am aware that retailers have been trying to nudge patrons in subtle ways for a very long time. Their motives were purely profit driven and, as a raging free market guy, I’m quite OK with that.

What’s going on here, however, it that paternalistic “We know what’s best for you” load of condescension that makes me cringe. It’s a lot like recycling, which I didn’t mind doing until people started telling me I had to do it. I’ve always spent more in the produce section of the grocery store than the snack or dessert sections but that is my choice. Those who choose to fill a SUV with Cheetos & Dr. Pepper every visit should be free to do so as well. The only reason their choice becomes the business of others is if we have to pay for their exploding hearts. That is just one of the many reasons I don’t like taxpayer subsidized health care.

What my neighbor is having for dinner should never be any business of mine.

It’s quite perplexing that in this society that’s obsessed with feelings (“Words are bullying”) and self esteem (“Letter grades can demoralize some kids”) we’re now signing off on the public shaming of physical appearance.

As the El Paso store found out, an increase in produce sales doesn’t really do much for the overall bottom line. Of course they’re not going to hit the Ruffles and onion dip if you’ve just used your mojo to get them to buy carrots and apples.

Doesn’t anyone think about these things ahead of time?