Many column centimetres have been written about the highly irritating practice of supermarkets flogging tempting goodies at children’s eye-height at checkouts. Indeed, for a while supermarkets responded to parental criticism and sometimes offered designated checkouts that were not replete with chocolate bars, plastic space creatures and sugar-coated lollies.
However, most supermarkets seem to have reverted to their old approach and most of the sweet-free checkouts are no more. And who can really blame them? Supermarkets exist to sell groceries to people. The more groceries sold, the more profitable the company and the happier the shareholders. Is it their role to reduce their sales of product, simply because parents cannot say “No” to their children? It isn’t only children tempted by the array of goodies. It is very common to see the person in front of you in the queue make a last minute impulse buy of a chocolate bar.
Such impulse products at the cash register are highly profitable for the supermarkets. Most impulse goodies have a fifty percent plus profit margin on them. Cutting back this selling space really does hurt business. Some people argue that supermarkets have a moral obligation to stop flogging sweets to kids as parents are at their most vulnerable to the crying child when feeling hassled in a checkout queue. They argue that it is unconscionable conduct on behalf of the supermarket and therefore it’s probably illegal under the Trade Practices Act 1974.
If one takes this view, then it is also unconscionable conduct that supermarkets put the bread, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables in completely different parts of the shop and therefore stop you having a lightning dash in from the car for just the essentials. Nope, supermarkets make you wander to the far corners of their emporium, past all the tempting goodies, before you can get near the milk.
It’s also unconscionable that meat is often placed under lighting that accentuates its colour so as to make it look more tempting, or that vegetables are arranged in pleasant pyramids so that you salivate at their sight.
Shops are set up to sell to you and me and our children. We go to shops to buy. It may be unfashionable to say so but it is our challenge to teach our children that we only buy certain products at certain times, and regardless of how much they want the chocolate bar, it may not be the time for them to have it.
I am lucky that my two boys do not pressure me every time I go to the checkout for a treat. But I often find myself looking on with some empathy at the woman struggling not only with a basketful of groceries but a child throwing a tantrum because she wants a chocolate bar.
I have used two techniques to teach my boys that supermarkets are not bottomless pits for their desires.
When they were both young, they received their ‘bribe’ at the beginning of the shopping expedition. On entering the supermarket we made a beeline for the pyramids of shining fruit and I would give them a choice. “Boys, would you like to nibble on strawberries or grapes for this trip?” I found the choice bit really important. If I gave them a choice then they felt that they had some control. If I simply gave them the fruit then they were simply the recipient of my decision. A bit of autonomy early on does wonders for peace and quiet. And if later they complained that they didn’t like their grapes, then I could look at them and remind them that they made the choice.
The first time I offered the fruit choice, I let the older boy decide, stating clearly that it would be the younger boy’s turn next time. “Pretend it’s fuel and see if you can make it last the entire shopping trip,” I suggested. And they did make it last the entire trip. The checkout operator simply smiled at me as she scanned the strawberry container which had but three strawberries left. This technique has worked beautifully. While some people might see this is a bribe, I see it as a mutually satisfying outcome. The boys eat and enjoy healthy food (even if unwashed!) and I get to shop without requests for junk food.
As they both got older they seem to have grown out of the need to have their mouth full whilst we shop. I gave them new tasks — chief packer, or chief list holder, or chief gatherer. I asked them to spot the cheapest price, the largest package, the smallest package… These activities also seemed to keep their minds off their stomachs. Occasionally they would ask for some junk food and I’d simply say “No.” I only needed to do it a few times and they knew not to ask. I would often give them an explanation of why I said “No.” This would give me an opportunity to explain a bit about nutrition. Soon my older son was able to find how much sugar, salt or fat a product contained.
Very occasionally, I’d allow them to choose a treat. And because it was only very occasionally, they’d appreciate it as a ‘treat.’ They felt special and I felt good. Shopping is still a chore, but it’s a chore because it has to be done. It’s not a chore because my boys make it so.
And I think all three of us get a bit of a buzz from cheating the big supermarkets out of a fifty-percent mark up!