Out of home businesses - marketing strategies: research

A report on research using ‘mystery shoppers’ to understand price and placement marketing strategies used within premises and online by out of home businesses in Scotland. The research included observation of whether or not calorie information was present at the point of purchase.

Executive summary

A key outcome of Scotland's National Performance Framework is that we are healthy and active. An important part of achieving this includes consuming healthy foods as well as restricting the consumption of foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). The Scottish Government has recently consulted on its proposals to restrict the promotions of foods high in fat, sugar, or salt.

Research was required to fill a gap in recent evidence on promotions of HFSS food and drink and to feed into the evidence base for changes proposed post-consultation. The Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos Scotland to undertake a mystery shopping exercise looking specially at the out-of-home (OOH) market. OOH refers to food and drink purchased and consumed outside the home, as well as take-away and home delivered food. It has a significant role to play in relation to excess calorie consumption. Much of this food is purchased in quick service burger, chicken and pizza restaurants (QSR), coffee shops, bakeries and 'on the go' sections of supermarkets and convenience stores. The research therefore focused on these outlet categories.

The research involved 316 'mystery shopper' visits to 158 OOH premises and 20 online visits to a purposively selected sample of outlets (designed to provide a spread in terms of urban and rural locations, Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) levels, and areas of Scotland). The visits, conducted by a team of specialist mystery shoppers, provided information on:

  • Price promotions
  • Meal deals
  • Upsizing and upselling
  • Product placement
  • Advertising of specific products
  • Availability of calorie and nutrition information within premises.

Key findings

There are a number of practices in place which make the environment challenging for consumers to make healthier choices including the high prevalence of promotions, particularly on 'less healthy' foods. However, the findings of the research are in some ways encouraging, with at least one 'healthier' option available in the majority of meal deal offers and few differences linked to the SIMD or urban versus rural profile of the outlets.

Most commonly observed marketing strategies and promotions

1. The most common marketing strategies recorded were the prominent placement of items near the till (69% of in-premise visits), meal deals (52% in-premise and 35% online visits) and price promotions (44% in-premise and 25% online visits).

2. Specific types of price promotions that were common were: multi-buy (41% of all price promotions observed in-premise) and reduced price promotions (24% of all price promotions observed in-premise) and discounts for minimum spend (55% of all price promotions observed online).

3. Price promotions were much less common in coffee shops than in other outlet categories (12% of in-premise visits and none online). Meal deals were available in almost all supermarkets (92% of in-premise visits ) and were available at 50% or more of outlets in other categories, with the exception of coffee shops (9% of in-premise visits and none online).

4. Overall, there was no clear pattern in terms of observed price promotions or meal deals being linked to the urban/rural or SIMD profile of the outlets.

Strategies encouraging people to eat more (and more than they may have intended)

5. In around one in four (28%) in-premise visits where there was the potential for it to happen, shoppers were encouraged verbally to 'upsize' their order by buying a larger size. This encouragement to upsize orders happened more frequently when shoppers were purchasing less healthy products than when they were purchasing healthier products (37% versus 20%). This was particularly the case in bakeries and coffee shops, where shoppers were much more likely to be encouraged to upsize when buying a less healthy product (38% in bakeries and 45% in coffee shops) compared to when they were buying a healthier product (0% in bakeries and 21% in coffee shops). In QSRs, however, the difference in encouragement to upsize when purchasing a less healthy product compared to a healthier product was much less pronounced (29% compared to 23%).

6. Upsizing via online prompts was much less common and only occurred in one of the 20 online visits.

7. 'Upselling' (verbal or online prompt encouraging consumers to purchase additional items e.g., a cake with a coffee) was more common than upsizing (42% of in-premise visits and 35% of online visits). This is in addition to the other types of promotions encouraging the purchase of additional items that were prominent across outlets such as: multi-buy promotions, meal deals and discounts for minimum spends.

Encouraging consumers to purchase less healthy foods rather than healthier foods

8. Most of the common marketing strategies (product placement, price promotions and general promotions) were on less healthy products.

9. Items most commonly found on price promotion in-premise included: confectionery (14% of price promotions observed), crisps or savoury snacks (12% of price promotions observed) and cakes (10% of price promotions observed). Online, the product most commonly found to be on price promotion was pizza (30% of price promotions observed) followed by savoury pastries (20% of price promotions observed).

10. Positively, healthier items (particularly water) were largely available within meal deals. However, when set against less healthy options, such as crisps or confectionery, consumers may find it hard to choose the healthier option. Furthermore, healthier items as part of meal deals were available in a greater proportion of outlets in less deprived areas than in more deprived areas (34% versus 14%).

11. The placement of items near the till point was common, with 69% of outlets using this type of strategy. Cakes (34% of outlets), confectionery (30% of outlets) and sweet biscuits (29% of outlets) were the items most commonly displayed in this way.

Consumers not always being able to make an informed choice

12. For consumers wishing to make informed choices, having calorie/nutrition information readily available within premises is key. It was present at just over half of outlets, meaning there are high numbers of cases in which consumers are not able to make informed choices. This is particularly true of independent outlets in this study who did not have it available at all.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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