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Although religion is a central aspect of life for many people across the globe, there is scant research on how religion aﬀects non-religious routines like grocery shopping. But using both field and laboratory data, we recently found that grocery spending decreases as religiosity rises. For companies in industries with razor-thin margins, as in the grocery business, responding to these dynamics may help increase the volume on which success depends.
In a series of five studies, we examined the grocery spending of hundreds of shoppers around the United States, where three out of every four people affiliate with a religion. We started by analyzing the dollar volume of annual grocery store sales per store across 1,600 U.S. counties in 2012 in relation to the number of reported religious adherents (per 1,000 population) in each county. After controlling for county characteristics, such as median age and household income, we found that for each 20% increase in the number of religious adherents in a county, annual grocery sales per store decreases, on average, by about $125,000.
Additionally, we examined individual-level grocery spending data from Point of Purchase Advertising International, which surveyed 2,400 grocery shoppers in 2011 and 2012 at 35 stores across 10 states. The results showed that shoppers living in more religious U.S. counties spent less money on groceries and also made fewer impulse purchases than those living in less religious U.S. counties.
Testing this general finding in the lab, we had more than 800 participants engage in a hypothetical grocery shopping task. They were shown photos of grocery items to choose from, such as grapes, milk, eggs, and soda. After they finished making their choices, they were shown a photo of a three-pack of chewing gum in a retail display. To measure participants’ willingness to spend, we asked them whether they would purchase the gum at different prices, ranging from 25 cents to $4 in 25-cent increments. After the grocery shopping task, we assessed each participant’s religiosity based on their level of agreement with items such as, “My religious beliefs lie behind my whole approach to life” and “Religious beliefs influence all my dealings in life.” The results showed that with each moderate increase in religiosity, participants’ spending tendency decreases by 5%.
In another lab experiment, we used the same shopping task to examine how participants’ willingness to spend changes when they are reminded about God. At the beginning of the survey, we told participants that they would evaluate a speaker appearing in a short video clip. Half the participants watched a man dressed in a suit and tie talk about God’s omnipresence (without espousing a particular religion). The other half watched an artist give some tips on oil painting. After the videos, participants moved on to the grocery shopping task. This time, we asked them to imagine they saw a special issue of their favorite magazine just before they finished “shopping.” Those who had watched the speaker talking about God’s omnipresence were willing to spend about 10% less on the magazine than those who watched an unrelated video.
Why might being told about God’s presence affect spending? To find out, we repeated the prior lab experiment, this time offering college students the opportunity to spend real money (provided by the experimenter) on a pack of candy bars at the end of the shopping task. We also asked the participants to indicate the extent to which they agreed with statements about frugality (for example, “I believe in being careful in how I spend my money”). Students who watched the video about God reported a higher level of frugality than those in the control group. Greater frugality in turn lowered students’ willingness to spend on the candy bars.
What might our results mean for retailers? Interestingly, some U.S. shopping malls facing high vacancy rates lease out available space to churches. Having such mixed-use environments is obviously convenient for some shoppers, but the increased foot traffic may not pay off as well for neighboring retailers as expected.
The effect of religiosity on consumer spending also has implications for store promotion strategies. Because being reminded about God increases shoppers’ frugality, they may be more sensitive to price discounts and promotions (such as “buy one, get one free”) around the time of religious holidays and observances. Getting a good deal, particularly on an impulse buy, is likely to alleviate shoppers’ heightened frugality.
Retailers may also allay religious shoppers’ concerns about being frugal by offering deals that demonstrate respect for their values, such as promising to donate a percentage of revenue from a particular product to a local charity. This is likely to be more effective for pleasurable product categories like desserts and baked goods than for utilitarian product categories like cleaning supplies because shoppers tend to perceive spending on pleasure as more discretionary.
A final note: while we focused on theistic, God-centered religion to test our hypothesis, people obviously practice many forms of spiritual engagement, from non-theistic religions to mindfulness meditation. No doubt these practices also influence consumption behavior, and reaching these spiritually minded shoppers will require more mindful marketing.