One way to resist buying junk food is to pay for groceries with cash instead of credit cards, according to a new study led by Manoj Thomas, assistant professor of marketing in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell.
’’The pain of paying in cash can curb impulsive urges to purchase unhealthy food products,’’ Thomas writes with his co-authors in the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. "Credit card payments, in contrast, are relatively painless and weaken impulse control.’’
The researchers analyzed the spending habits of 1,000 shoppers at a large chain store over six months in 2003 and then conducted two controlled experiments at Cornell and SUNY Binghamton, as well as an online experiment.
Previous studies had found that consumers are more reluctant to part with bills and coins than to use credit -- what the research has labeled "pain of payment." Thomas’ team, however, established that the "pain" of paying in cash really only affects impulsive purchases of "vice" foods and not deliberate "virtuous" purchases. There was no difference, however, when consumers used credit and debit cards to buy food -- an unexpected finding.
"This is surprising," Thomas said, "because, unlike credit cards, debit cards are equivalent to cash; the money gets deducted from the consumer’s bank account almost immediately. This result suggests that … even the mere abstractness of plastic payments can reduce the pain of payment and thus influence consumers’ purchase decisions."
The key to understanding the findings, Thomas said, is that the so-called "vice" foods, such as Oreos and Coca-Cola, for example, are perceived as unhealthy and impulsive to buy. Shoppers therefore relate to vice foods on a purely "visceral" level, Thomas said, whereas they consider "virtue" foods (Quaker Oatmeal and Aquafina Pure Water, for instance) at a rational level as "utilitarian" products.