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Religion and the grocery bill

Even being exposed to religious images can tighten wallets

Does being religious make you less likely to buy that head of lettuce in the produce section? Those may seem to be unrelated impulses, but Questrom-led research says they actually play out in grocery store aisles.

Five studies, done over the last two-plus years with lead researcher Didem Kurt, an assistant professor of marketing, found that people who believe in God keep a tighter grip on their wallets than do the nonreligious. But even the latter tend to buy less after exposure to religious messaging.

Why would that be? The engine is religion’s emphasis, explicit or implicit, on thrift, says Kurt, who researches shopping behavior, including social influences, in-store decision-making, and impulse buying. “Being reminded about God,” she says, “actually increased shoppers’ beliefs about frugality or being prudent, being careful while spending money.”

A possible insight for business owners from the work by Kurt and her colleagues is that they should consider the proximity of houses of worship when deciding where to put their stores.

The researchers examined broad statistical data, such as Americans’ shopping habits by county that were compiled by an advertising firm. They also conducted experiments, and in one of them, more than 800 participants viewed photos of grocery items, from fruit to dairy to soda. Researchers asked the subjects which they’d buy, then showed the buyers a photo of chewing gum and asked whether they’d purchase it at different prices, from 25 cents to $4.

“Reminders of God might actually remind them about some commonly shared values, such as frugality, even if they don’t believe in God.” Didem Kurt, assistant professor of marketing

Finally, the researchers surveyed each participant about his or her religiosity. Results: the more religious participants were, the less they were willing to spend.

In another experiment, participants watched an 80-second nondenominational video with a speaker discussing “God’s presence in our daily lives,” says Kurt. “He wasn’t talking about shopping or spending money.” A control group watched an instructional video on painting. Then both groups were given the grocery shopping task, augmented this time by an unplanned item: they were told the store had a special issue of their favorite magazine.

“People who watched that religious video were willing to spend less on that unplanned item as compared to those who watched the control video,” she says, even if they weren’t religious. “They actually indicated that they were feeling more frugal, like, ‘I have to be careful while spending my money.’ Reminders of God might actually remind them about some commonly shared values, such as frugality, even if they don’t believe in God.”