Adventures in Consumer Behavior, Or: Chicken Salad Lovers of the World Unite

Regular readers who are familiar with the man behind this blog may know that in addition to a predisposition for sharing musings on everything from politics to sports with the world, I have a fondness for chicken salad. While I enjoy the chicken salad that I make, the typical hurdles life often places in the way render it difficult for me to whip up a batch every time I have a hankering. Therefore, I often turn to alternative suppliers to meet my needs.

In other words, I often buy my chicken salad from the store. Due to its proximity to work, the store that meets this need is typically the Whole Foods in Boston's West End. While going there means that I pay more for my chicken salad than I would if I bought it from many other places (or made it myself), I suffer this marginal premium for the sake of convenience, because the product is consistent and because Whole Foods offers some interesting takes on my favored treat, including a curry-seasoned version and something the marketing folks there call Sonoma.

These exotic species of the chicken salad genus reside in the prepared foods case, typically nestled among myriad skewers, pasta salads and a platter that is somehow perpetually overflowing with seared tuna. Today, needing a protein fix, I wandered the approximately 150 yards from my office door to Whole Foods and lightheadedly made my way to the aforementioned prepared foods counter. What I found there was a very plain chicken salad. In and of itself, this was no problem. Sometimes a chicken salad without grapes or a curry powder-powered yellow tint is a fine option, and their plain version is pretty close to what I make, and enjoy, at home.

The only problem is that this particular plain chicken salad, priced at the premium level of $9.99 per pound, looked suspiciously like the plain chicken salad that can be found every day at the salad bar where everything is $7.99 per pound. On further inspection (during which time I had to dodge at least 46 frantic shoppers) I noted that the ingredients were exactly the same, in exactly the same order. In short, it looked like the 'premium' chicken salad du jour was exactly the same product as the everyday stuff. Now, I didn't have the heart to put a manager to the test and explain to a self-important blogger what the difference was. And I suppose that the prepared foods counter version might have used chickens that were raised solely on gold flakes or maybe included pepper grown and processed by Tibetan monks. However, I have a suspicion that they were exactly the same.

How did Whole Foods manage to do this with a straight face? Maybe they are banking on the fact that people won't want to ask for the pint containers which can be found at the counter, but not at the salad bar where large square containers are de rigueur? Maybe they were just figuring no one would notice?

I am guessing it is more a matter of understanding regular consumer behavior. Some people are just very programmed to get their chicken salad from the folks at the counter. Among some Whole Foods customers, $2.00 per pound might seem to be so trifling as to be unworthy of a post that is running comically long, never mind the indignity of resorting to self-service. Individuals like that just always go to the counter, and it is not worth it for them to change their behavior to find the cheap version somewhere else, even in the same store. To me, it was, and I grabbed my typical pint container, fought the crowds to get back to the salad bar and grabbed myself the (relatively) cheap version. Incidentally, it was completely satisfactory.

At any rate, I know that my fellow amateur economists appreciate this type of practical, everyday application of the dismal science at least as much as some of my more esoteric musings, so I thought it would be worth a post. I would appreciate any additional personal examples of stores utilizing knowledge of consumer behavior in the comments section. Until then, I wish you all happiness, and efficiency, in all your grocery-related endeavours.


  1. Anonymous4/5/12 00:19

    Burger King for years offered a 5 pc chicken tenders meal for 99 cents, and an 8 pc chicken tenders meal for $1.99. If you ordered two 10-pieces, they were actually paying you a penny to eat two more pieces of chicken.

  2. Thanks for the interesting insight.

    Variable unit pricing is not uncommon and it is typical for prices per unit to fall as absolute numbers or volumes increase. Think of examples like a larger orange juice or soda costing less per ounce than the small bottle.

    These discrepencies often take into account things like packaging, labor costs and storage space consumed. It also plays on consumer demand as people who only want a cold soda now will grab the 20 ounce bottle of Coke, not the 2 liter version, no matter what the price savings would be on the latter.

    However, you hardly ever see the overall price of a quantity of goods fall below the overall price of a lower quantity, particularly when there is obviously more packaging, more labor and more space involved. This would certainly be the case with the tenders as two boxes are used, an employee has to scoop twice and more shelf space under the bright lights is utilized.

    In any case, it is nice to see a fellow member of the conscientious shopper club is a reader, thanks for stopping by.


  3. Anonymous14/5/12 09:41

    Another explanation for the price hike in the prepared food section is that it hasn't been sitting out since 8am exposed to thousands of Bostonians who might be coughing, sneezing, or returning previously scooped up chicken salad to the chicken salad trough found in the salad bar. The chicken salad in the prepared foods section is protected from the masses. Some people might think this deserves a surcharge.

  4. Thanks for the comment, that is a good point.

    I guess I was lucky to not come down with anything after braving the perils of the salad bar!


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