Subconscious mechanisms at play on the supermarket shelf

Nowadays, as you stand at the supermarket shelf deciding which product to buy, you are more often than not confronted with a ‘sea of sameness’. Products are blending into one another in colour, shape, size and offer.

In the world of neuroscience this is known as repetition blindness, a phenomenon that kicks in when hundreds of similar products are presented on-shelf, resulting in the brain taking a ‘short holiday’.

So what subconscious mechanisms contribute to your decision to end up with six particular items out of a possible 26,000 stock-keeping units (which is what an average Coles supermarket now carries)? What makes your brain snap out of its ‘short holiday’?


Consumer personalities and their relevance detectors for packaging

As discussed in my earlier blogs (e.g. Subconscious mechanisms at the point of sale) the limbic system in our brains acts as a relevance detector when deciding whether a stimulus – and therefore packaging – is noise or is relevant, whether we perceive it at all, and whether we reach out for a product on the shelf.

What will resonate with us – even before we become aware of it – is basically determined in our Limbic system, which follows three major forces (“The Big 3”):

  • The Balance system (goal and purpose: security, avoidance of risk, stability)
  • The Dominance system (goal and purpose: self-assertion, displacement of the competition, autonomy)
  • The Stimulance system (goal and purpose: discovery of new things, learning new skills)

So when it comes to packaging, recognising the wishes of the target shopper’s most dominant emotion system is crucial. Why? Because this system determines whether a product stands out from the crowd on the shelf, strategically attracts and enables us, as shoppers, to identify that it’s “the one” amongst the sea of sameness.

To explore the way our subconscious operates and navigates us at the supermarket shelf, let’s visit typical types of packaging, more specifically packaging shapes: “The Hexagon”, “The Sweet”, and the “Butter Dish Shape”, that are clearly aligned with the paradigms of “The Big 3”.

The Hexagon


As evidenced in a large packaging study, “The power of limbic packaging”, the hexagon particularly impresses dominance-driven personality types, associating it with discipline, control, reliability and efficiency. The hexagon is also a favourite among men and younger people.

The Sweet


The sweet resonated strongly with stimulance-driven personality types and is described as being lovingly packaged, imaginative and creative. This form of packaging creates surprise, the exact emotionality of the Stimulance system.

The Butter Dish


Due to its association with butter, the butter dish is subconsciously linked with traditional and balance oriented values. Therefore the emotional evaluation was most successful amongst older people. Stimulance-driven personality types vehemently rejected this shape in the study.

Getting packaging cues into shape

Getting packaging into shape relies on a deeper understanding of the consumers who move towards a brand. The shapes, along with colours, textures, tone of voice and messaging all form part of the thousand details that matter to our subconscious when making a decision on the ever more crowded supermarket shelfs of today.

Millions of dollars are spent on trying to attract us as shoppers to buy particular products. Yet these decisions were determined many years ago.

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights, a subsidiary of Retail Doctor Group, which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale. “Innovative consumer insights are vital to the development and implementation of a truly differentiated brand strategy. How we as humans interact with brands in a meaningful and loyal way underpins the growth and profitability of all businesses.”



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