Sainsbury’s: Using Consumer Psychology to Understand Buyer Behaviour

Updated: Aug 21

Written by Natasha Ryzhova


Consumer behaviour has been extensively examined throughout academic literature, with there being a plethora of insights into how consumers behave and what psychological processes they go through (Blythe, 2008). This information has been pertinent for organisations to understand the purchasing patterns of their primary consumer segments, and thus implement strategies that can encourage consumers towards specific purchases or exhibit certain behaviours (Evans, et al., 2006).

Furthermore, there are a variety of different behaviours that consumers can exhibit when purchasing products, with mass wastage becoming a significant issue across the global environment. This is primarily an issue for food retailers, such as supermarkets in the UK, as it is estimated that over £13bn worth of food is being thrown away every year (Smithers, 2017). There are a variety of reasons that can be cited for causing this, including mass consumption attitudes, purchasing bulk discounts when there is no need, or overestimating household food requirements. The UK, along with other national governments, are having to take a more proactive stance for managing this, with UK supermarkets helping to champion the cause by mitigating mass consumerism and limiting food wastage (Quested, et al.,2011).

Therefore, this report presents a critical analysis of mass consumerism from the perspective of food waste, with the case study organisation being Sainsbury’s. The organisation was established in 1869 and has become one the largest supermarkets across the UK (Sainsburys, 2019), with recorded revenues of over £28bn and profit before tax of £589m (Sainsburys, 2019a). This means that they have a significant influence over the entire supermarket industry, and can leverage this power to impact consumer behaviour and mitigate food wastage.

This report will analyse the current issues of mass consumerism regarding food wastage using prominent consumer psychology theories, whilst also evaluating what strategies Sainsbury’s are currently implemented to manage this. Furthermore, a review of possible solutions that Sainsbury’s could implement will also be explored, which is grounded through relevant theoretical approaches for maximising the impact on consumer behaviour and to mitigate food wastage in the UK.

The analysis section of this report presents a critical analysis on five key areas, including a problem statement, motivations for food wastage, impacts of food wastage, current solutions implemented by Sainsbury’s, and what future strategies could be leveraged.

2.1 Problem

The growing amount of food waste across the UK is becoming a significant problem from both an economic and environmental perspective. Economically, high levels of food wastage cause a significant financial drain on local communities, as the councils have to provide an appropriate level of service for ensuring waste is picked up, cleaned, and destroyed.

This is a complex process for managing over £13bn worth of food waste every year (Quested, et al., 2011), with eliminating this helping to streamline the operations of local councils and allowing them to invest elsewhere on more value-adding processes (Wrap, 2019). Furthermore, this means that food wastage can also be seen to cause problems for other areas of the local communities, such as having public services resources, due to the investment that is required to manage landfills and food disposal systems (Fareshare, 2018).

Alternatively, the major impact of food waste is the impact that it has on the environment, with its increasing pollution and destroying local environments. This is because the majority of the UK’s infrastructure is not prepared to manage such significant wastage of food, which means that local communities become filled with food that cannot be disposed of efficiently (Fareshare, 2018). Moreover, high levels of food wastage are also seen as a key driving force for climate change, as the management of landfills across the UK emit a considerable amount of emissions (Fareshare, 2018).

Therefore, this further amplifies the problem that is currently facing the UK with regards to food waste, whilst also suggesting that consumers may not understand the impact they are having when they throw away unwanted food (Chang, et al., 2013).

2.2 Motivations

Two theories are analysed to understand the motivations behind mass consumption that results in significant food waste across the UK. This includes the licensing effect and the experiential hierarchy. In essence, the licensing effect is a theory that presents the notion an increased level of confidence or security with regards to a consumer self-image or self-congruency will result in that individual worrying less about potential immoral behaviours (Khan, 2006).

For example, an individual may purchase luxury clothing if it enhances their social status and perceptions, irrelevant of where the product has been sourced from or what the manufacturing processes may have been (Merritt, et al., 2010). Therefore, this makes it difficult for an organisation to deter individuals away from immoral behaviours, especially if the behaviour has little impact on self-image and self-congruence. This can be seen as the case for mass consumption with regards to food waste in the UK, as it does not particularly impact on self-image, yet the majority of consumers consciously or subconsciously conduct this immoral behaviour (Quested, et al., 2011).

It is likely that one of the core motivations for this is the accessibility of purchasing bulk food products at discount prices, whilst a house full of food can represent a wealthy and sustainable household to relevant peers. This suggests that when applying the licensing effect to understand the motivations behind mass consumption regarding high levels of food wastage, the self-image may not be a key influencer, but being perceived as wealthy and being able to afford bulk purchases encourages consumers to disregard the impacts of food waste (Evans, et al., 2006; Calnan, 2018; Khan, 2006).

On the other hand, experiential hierarchy fundamentally presents the notion that consumers will purchase specific goods because it ‘feels good’, or ‘feels right’ (Chang & Chieng, 2006). This is an incredibly simple concept that can explain the motivational behaviour of consumers without being weighed down in numerous psychological conditions, and can also be effectively applied to mass consumerism regarding food waste.

Furthermore, this is particularly pertinent for the concept that individuals will purchase products because it ‘feels good’, with this potentially explaining why consumers will purchase more than they require (Nicolao, et al., 2009). This is mainly driven by supermarkets offering a plethora of multibuy discounts for bulk purchases, with consumers receiving a feeling of success or appeasement from being able to purchase a significant number of products for the same, or less, cost. Moreover, these emotions are often experienced irrelevant of whether the consumer ever intends to the consumer all of the food product and simply represents how incredibly price sensitive individuals can be when purchasing food goods (Blythe, 2008; Lee & Goudeau, 2014).

In addition to this, the experiential hierarchy model also presents the notion that consumers can conduct certain behaviours without ever considering the consequences of their purchase, which is likely also the case for causing significant food wastage across the UK (Chang, et al., 2013). This is because consumers will simply see bulk purchasing discounts as a cost saving on their weekly shop, and do not forward think as to whether they will consume the food, and if they do not know what the potential impacts are (Nicolao, et al., 2009).

2.3 Effects

The effects of food waste across the UK are untenable, with it clearly having a dramatic impact from both an economic and environmental perspective (Wrap, 2019; Fareshare, 2018). This means that mass consumption must be viewed as an immortal behaviour for driving such high levels of food wastage across the UK, with it being pertinent that supermarkets can engage with consumers to educate them on the impacts that this is having (Khan, 2006; Thorgersen, 1999).

The modern business environment is witnessing a growing trend in ‘green consumerism’, which means that consumers are more sensitive to how their behaviours impact the local and global environment. Therefore, this must be exploited to facilitate an understanding on the effect of food wastage across the UK to influence consumer behaviour through both the licensing effect and experiential hierarchy (Chang, et al., 2013; Evans, et al., 2006). This is because it will encourage consumers to change their behaviours when making bulk purchases due to discounts, as they will have more knowledge on how food wastage directly contributes to destroying the environment (Porpino, 2016).

Furthermore, and within the UK specifically, the economic impact of straining local councils for managing high levels of food wastage can also be communicated, with individuals also becoming more sensitive to budgetary levels for public services and providing for the local community (Lee & Goudeau, 2014). This positions supermarkets uniquely at this moment in time to communicate the diverse range of impacts that food wastage and mass consumption have on the UK, and to leverage this to deter immoral behaviours and encourage consumers to think more about their purchases (Aschemann-Witzel, et al., 2015).

2.4 Current Solutions

There is one current pertinent solution that Sainsbury’s are implementing to try and manage the issue of food waste across the UK. This has seen the supermarket giant abolish all multi-buy discounts within their stores, thus meaning that consumers cannot buy products for ‘buy one get one free’, or ‘two for three’ discounts (Denton, 2016). The strategy can be seen to directly impact the financial performance of Sainsbury’s, as consumers may not want to purchase from an organisation that does not offer competitive deals. This directly highlights the intrinsic desire of Sainsbury’s to reduce food wastage across the UK, even though it could have negative impacts on overall firm performance (Calnan, 2018; Butler, 2016).

In addition to this, the abolishment of all promotional deals relating to multi-buy discounts can also align with the experiential hierarchy theory, as consumers do have an intrinsic desire to purchase from specific brands, and may sacrifice multi-buy discounts to do this (Denton, 2016; Chang & Chieng, 2006).

Moreover, this is amplified if the organisation can offer single line item discounts as an alternative promotional strategy, which still provides consumers with a discount for purchasing their favourite brands without the need to buy multiple quantities of the same product (Calnan, 2018; Evans, et al., 2006).

In addition to this, Sainsbury’s have also established a variety of food donation, or food banks, across their stores. This means that individuals that purchase too many products can donate to local communities and charities that are in genuine need for additional food (Sainsburys, 2019b). Therefore, this reaches out to the better nature of consumers to donate food items that they do not require, although this is a process that is conducted upon purchasing the products (Blythe, 2008).

Unfortunately, there are little incentives for consumers to donate products that have not been used before the end of their shelf life, even though they are still perfectly healthy to consumer (Hall & Osses, 2013). Therefore, this represents a solution that is moderately effective for reducing food waste, although it still means that there is a significant gap for completely eliminating the issue.

2.5 Future Solutions

It is evident that Sainsbury’s have already started to implement multiple strategies that could help to reduce food wastage across the UK and change the fundamental psychological processes that occur for this behaviour to exist. One of the first solutions that Sainsbury’s can explore is to reconsider the sell-by dates on products (Hall & Osses, 2013). Many foods analysts state that the sell-by date on food products is well in advance of when the food becomes inedible or unhealthy, thus prompting individuals to throw away more products (Hall & Osses, 2013).

Furthermore, this can be aligned with the escalation of commitment to consumer psychology theory, as it may prompt individuals to stop negative behaviour relating to food waste (Fox, et al., 2009). This is because extending the sell-by date will allow individuals more time to the consumer the food, and for Sainsbury’s to sell the food, which reduces the responsibility on the consumer to throw away out of date food products (He & Mittal, 2017).

Moreover, Sainsbury’s should also aim to introduce an incentive scheme whereby consumers can return their existing products if they have not been used before the expiry date. It is commonly cited that the majority of foods that have past their expiry date can still be consumed and are perfectly healthy, but the majority of consumers will still throw these products away (Hall & Osses, 2013).

Therefore, this presents the opportunity for an organisation like Sainsbury’s to entice consumer behaviour in post-purchase stages of the purchasing cycle, whilst also proactively mitigating food waste and providing to those in need (Blythe, 2008). The primary challenge with this solution is that it can be hard to interact with consumer psychology once the consumer has made the purchase, with the licensing effect and experiential hierarchy having little applicability in this scenario (Chang & Chieng, 2006; Wikstrom, et al., 2014). Instead, this must focus on appealing to the sustainable and ethical nature that is inherent within the majority of consumers, and encouraging consumers to behave a certain way through this method (Akenji, 2014; Thorgersen, 1999).

To summarise, there are clearly many challenges with managing food waste within the UK, with it being difficult for supermarkets to be the only driving force for this change. Two prominent consumer psychology theories have been analysed to review these concepts, including the Licensing Effect and Experiential Hierarchy. This has indicated that there are a plethora of subjective factors that drive individuals to purchase more than they require, such as the intrinsic to desire to own lots of material goods, and own subjective feelings towards certain brands and products.

Therefore, these processes often encourage individuals to purchase more than they require, which is further exacerbated if a food retailer is offering multi-buy discounts. A few critical strategies have been proposed for managing this, which should include supermarkets completely abolishing multi-buy discounts, whilst also offering a return service for any food products that have gone beyond their expiry date. This will incentivise individuals to return unwanted food so that it can be distributed to demographics in need, while also discouraging the purchase of multiple products without just cause.


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