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Isabella Riegg

Dr. Dorsey
MKTG 370-01 12116
Grocery Store Ethnographic

This field study took place at Whole Foods Brea on March 11, 2019 at 1:30 p.m.

Cooked Notes:

● On a beautiful Monday afternoon, such as this one, the traffic flow of Whole Foods is

slow and relaxed with the many shoppers walking slowly while taking in the many

healthy options that are offered.

● Subject is dressed casually, not an ounce of makeup on her face but with a designer

backpack slung over her shoulder.

o Was she in a rush this morning when she was getting ready? Does she prefer to go

make-up free when she’s working? If she even works?

● Supermarket is usually packed, but today it was empty with the occasional chatter from a

family shopping together.

● Subject looks like she is in her early-50’s and is married.

o Does she have kids? Do all her kids live out of the house? How many kids does

she have?

● It seems that everyone is doing the same thing as my subject: they are all walking slowly

and examining every single product they pick up very carefully.

● Subject beelined for the Kale.

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o Subject then took out every single bushel of kale, carefully examining them and

picked out the two best ones and put them in her cart,

o Where they really the best bushel’s? Or were they the right quantity for what she

was going to prepare for dinner that night or that week?

● Two toddlers walked by with their father or babysitter and the subject looked over at

them and smiled.

o Is she reminiscing on when her kids were that age? Is she happy/sad she didn’t

have any kids?

● Subject is still looking around with a neutral expression with her eyes narrowing


o Is she trying to remember what she needs to buy?

o Is she unhappy with herself being there?

● Subject stopped abruptly to look at organic cabbage that looks dirty, but she is still


o She grabbed two heads

● She then stopped abruptly when she stumbled upon the three types of nut butters.

o She stood there for a solid two minutes before deciding to get two of the three

types of nut butters (almond and honey roasted peanuts).

o Did she pick them because she has a preference to almond butter rather than

regular peanut butter?

● Stopped to gawk and looked happily at some potatoes that were small and round.

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o She then held them up to her nose and nodded in approval, but still set them


● Subject then looked quizzically up at the ceiling.

o Did she forget something? Does she not like the song the store is playing?

● Subject then pulled her list out of her bag and proceeded to the next section she needs to

shop in.

● While subject was at her desired section, she bolted over to another aisle to get a

container of wipes.

o Does she usually get this specific brand of wipe all the time? Why did she pick

this specific type of handwipe over the others?

● Subject then went into the pasta aisle and breathed a sigh.

o Subject got so happy that she was unaware that there was another person in the


o Saw some macaroni and cheese that was gluten free and got three kinds of it.

● Then went to the milk byproducts aisle and loaded up on dairy free yogurt.

o Does she have dietary restriction? Does she have a preference for dairy free

yogurt over regular yogurt?

o Does someone in her household have a dietary restriction? Or is it just


● Subject then stopped to think about where to go next.

o Went straight to the frozen fruits and vegetables. She then picked out a bag of

frozen strawberries and mangoes.

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● Since she was in the frozen fruit, subject then looked like she was on a mission in search

of something.

o She then went to the ice cream aisle.\

● A Cher song came on the store and started to dance, and sing-a-long in the aisle while

picking her ice cream.

o She chose two gelato’s and two non-dairy options.

▪ Is it because of preference? Why did she choose those flavors? Does she

have a preference for gelato over regular ice cream? Does she have dietary


● The store is a lot fuller now, subject then makes a beeline to the checkout line/registers.

● Subject saw someone she knew and proceeded to talk to them for a short time while they

were both in the same checkout line.

● Subject then arranged her items from frozen items to perishables then to fruits.

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A. Cognition

● What sort of classification scheme is represented in the way items are arranged in a


It seemed that the most well known and expensive brands are at eye level, with the more

generic brands located towards the bottom and very top of the shelf. The positioning of

the products shows that they want you to buy those expensive food items, rather than

looking for the cheaper and relatively the same option. For example, the Whole Food

private label was located towards the top of the shelves, with the more well-known

brands located more central on the shelves. Even though their private label is one of the

best, there is still the connotation that it isn’t as good.

● On what basis does the shopper make selections of what to buy?

The shopper tends to be very pensive and deliberate when she makes her decision on

what she wants to buy for her household. With every item that she picked up, she held it

in her hands and examined it very closely. Most of the items that she held, she bought.

Since it was a weekday, it seemed that my Subject was buying in large quantities to try

and not go to the store again this week. Due to Whole Foods being an all-natural

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supermarket, the Subject seemed to take into the account the impact it would have on her

family (if she had one), the price and if the item was going to taste good. However, due to

the abundance of produce that she bought, I’m going to assume that my Subject has a

family of some sort.

● How does the shopper use his/her knowledge of the particular supermarket (or

supermarkets in general) in the form of a “cognitive map” to organize his/her

shopping, so as to obtain whatever he/she came to buy?

The shopper uses the layout of the store to her advantage. When she first walked in, she

picked some veggies and fruit for the week, while then proceeding into the milk products

and milk biproducts. Instinctively, the shopper also seemed to arrange her items on the

conveyor belt in the same order in which she bought them. There could be a possibility

that my Subject wants to give a final check-off to what she actually bought. Additionally,

she possibly wants to arrange the items in a way that could be beneficial to how she

would put away the groceries when she gets home. It seemed that the shopper’s mental

and written checklist was used to make sure she was hitting all of the items that her

family needs. The way the store was positioned made it seem like a mental reminder that

the subject does indeed need it.

● Any additional observations and inferences which are pertinent to this portion of

the study (and its premise).

Although it seemed that she knew her way around the store, she still found herself to be

surprised and happy with the new items and current items that they were offering. She

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still found herself buying the new items that were being featured, in addition to her new

grocery items.

B. Social Organization

● Who goes to a supermarket?

Everyone goes to a grocery store, whether it’s for a quick trip for some apples or for

wanting to get lost and just see all the items nicely positioned. Going to a supermarket or

window shopping can be therapeutic, especially when you’re in a negative headspace.

Families, couples, single people, and widowers all go to the supermarket for getting

mundane things and to also be connected to their community.

● What are the social rules for getting a cart, traversing aisles, selecting items,

ordering special cuts of meat at the meat counter or deli (etc.), and checking out?

Some of the most common rules of being in a super market are to get either a cart of

basket, then to walk slowly through the store to try and remember what you need to buy.

Typically, when buying new items, you tend to pick up that item and analyze it, and if it

coincides with what you are looking for then you buy it, or vice versa. While perusing the

aisles, it’s socially acceptable for you to make room for those shoppers that have carts

and to be socially and spatially aware of the space around you. Traversing in the aisles is

almost like two lanes of traffic, both sides have equal opportunity to look at both sides

and exit when they please. In regards to ordering special cuts of meat and fish, it’s

socially acceptable to take a ticket and wait your turn for the butcher to cut your meats

for you. When checking out, when you’re all done with your shopping, it’s necessary for

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you to unload your cart so that way the cashier can help you bag and scan your items.

Depending on the supermarket, the cashier is expected to unload your cart for you.

● What are the general social rules that govern behavior or shopper demeanor and


The general social rules that govern behavior or shopping is to talk in hush tones if you

are shopping with another person or to be quiet and keep to yourself. If there are those

that are loud and don’t act within that demeanor, then they are seen as weird and

annoying. However, when you’re put in a situation where there is another shopper that

wants the same item as you, you tend to speed up what you’re doing in order for the other

person to get their turn to get that time. In turn, that makes your mind wander and start to

put things in your cart or basket that you don’t technically need.

● What happens if the rules are violated?

Our social norms and mannerisms are so critical in our everyday lives because we are a

very socialized society. These norms set the standards so people know what is right and

wrong, which was ingrained in us when we were children. There is still the possibility of

people acting out of turn, especially when they grow impatient. When you don’t act

within those boundaries and guidelines, you will be excluded from society and people

will stay away from you. People are creatures of habit, in the sense that they want to stay

within their own set of preferences and what they want to do in their everyday life.

● Any additional observations and inferences which are pertinent to this portion of

the study (and its premise).

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From doing this study and observing my shopper’s shopping behavior, I realize that most

of the shoppers acted the same. They were all very quiet, kept to themselves, and held a

neutral expression. There was the rarity that there were some shoppers that knew each

other, so there were some loud outbursts but quickly dissipated. These behaviors were

learned traits and we are so focused as a society on being within what we are comfortable


C. Recommendations & Reflections on Conducting Observations

● What changes in atmospherics (light, color, smell, temperature, etc.), design,

strategy, etc. could be implemented to improve outcomes for both the consumer and

the firm?

From a frequent consumer of Whole Foods, I feel that they successfully bridge the gap

with making healthy food and living a healthy lifestyle attainable, even though most of

the items are expensive. The lighting and temperature make it inviting and warm, instead

of you being hit in the face with cold air. The lighting is warm, so instead of the harsh

fluorescent lighting, it gives off the vibe that you are outside at a farmer’s market, rather

than being inside of a supermarket. The colors were neutral and calming with light greens

and blue, with sudden bursts of vibrant orange and red. The colors alternated from every

aisle depending on what was being offered. The smell of the overall store varied from

fish to meat, and vegetables to fruits; however, when going deeper into the store, it smells

clean, but a different kind of clean that is not clean laundry or anything of that sort.

● What problems and/or opportunities were observed in the retail environment?

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The main problem that I saw throughout the store is that most of the organic items are

very expensive compared to the non-organic items. Although the high price tag is

expected, since they are the first ones to be certified as a national “Certified Organic”

grocer. I feel like it’s not attainable for their target market, even though “natural and

healthy organic foodstuffs are in the great demand with the younger and health conscious

generation” (Fernandes, 2018). Since Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon recently,

the pricing for their items went down drastically which brought in a lot more customers.

However, if they do want to bring in that younger demographic, there needs to be a sales

or rewards gamification system (Solomon, 2016).

● What are key consumer issues/challenges/opportunities learned from the


The major issues learned from the observation are to make sure that the health options are

realistic and attainable for the average person. In the pressed juice section, I found

asparagus water, which is just water with a single asparagus in it. No one asked for that,

nor does anyone want that. It’s better to stick with adding certain healthy items, such as

turmeric or cayenne to orange juice or hatch chili peppers in hummus.

● How would you advise your consumer/other consumers regarding the observed


I would advise for my consumer to continue to be more aware of the certain health foods

that are out there. With all of the changing diets that fade in and out of being trendy, it’s

important for us to find what is a good fit for us and our lifestyles. Just because an

organic item has a more expensive price tag doesn’t entirely mean that it is better for you.

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By being pensive and paying a lot of attention to what we put into our body, we are

slowly but surely moving into a more aware and health conscious society, with hopefully

a lower obesity rate in the next coming years.

● What was difficult and/or easy about this activity?

I found that it was hard for me, personally, to be subtle when following my subject. Since

I took my raw notes in an actual notebook, I found it hard to hide it on my cart, while still

maneuvering my shopping cart in the store and keeping track of my shopper. What I

found easy was observing my shopper, while still zooming in and zooming out of the

aisles. Also, since I’ve visited the store before, I knew before-hand where my subject was

going before they even left my line of sight.

● What did you learn about conducting observations?

It’s hard at first to get out of your own mind set and put on per say a marketing

researcher’s hat. But once you’re in that observation mindset, the thoughts start to flow

out in an instant. Although I had to be sneaky with my observations, I came to realize that

I conduct my own observations on a daily basis, whether I’m at work, going to the store,

or at school, I’m constantly observing the environment that I’m in.

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Fernandes, L. & Srinivasan, Dr. R. (February 2018). A Consumer Analysis of Whole Foods

Market. Vol. 3. Issue 2. Retrieved on 21 March 2019.


Solomon, M. (24 January 2016). ​Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being.​ 12​th​ Ed.

London, UK: Pearson.

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Map of Whole Foods Brea:

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