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Alcohol buying behaviour – Bath Spa University

Research from psychologists lifts the lid on alcohol buying behaviour

Friday, 12 May, 2023

A collaborative research project led by newly-appointed Bath Spa University Psychology Lecturer, Dr Natasha Clarke (while at the University of Cambridge), indicates that increasing the proportion of non-alcoholic drinks on sale in online supermarkets could reduce the amount of alcohol people purchase.

This latest research – carried out by Dr Natasha Clarke and Dr Gareth Hollands at the University of Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit – was funded by Wellcome. The results verified the increasing evidence that people can be ‘nudged’ towards reducing their alcohol consumption by making small adjustments to their environment.

The researchers recruited 737 adults living in England and Wales, all of whom regularly purchased alcohol online, to take part in the study. Of these, just over 600 completed the study and were included in the final analysis – 60% were female and the average (mean) age was 38.

Participants selected drinks from 64 options in a simulated online supermarket designed to look and function like a real online supermarket. Options included a range of beers, ciders, alcohol-free beer and cider alternatives, and soft drinks.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, each of which was presented with a different proportion of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. 25% of the drinks seen by Group 1 were non-alcoholic. For Group 2, this increased to 50%, and for Group 3 the proportion of non-alcoholic drinks seen rose to 75%.

Those exposed to the highest proportion of non-alcoholic drinks (Group 3) selected fewer alcohol units, 17.5 units, compared to 29.4 units in those exposed to the lowest proportion of non-alcoholic drinks (Group 1) – equivalent to a reduction of about 41%. 

Participants were then asked to actually purchase the same drinks in an online supermarket, Tesco, the largest national supermarket in the UK. Around two-thirds of participants completed this second stage, with 422 participants going on to purchase drinks. The researchers point out that ‘cart abandonment’ – where people do not purchase items they put in their shopping cart – is common in online shopping contexts.

The researchers found that amongst participants exposed to the highest proportion of non-alcoholic drinks, 52% of the drinks purchased were alcoholic, compared to 70% of drinks that were purchased by those exposed to the lowest proportion of non-alcoholic drinks. 

Dr Natasha Clarke said:

“We created our simulated supermarket to be as close as possible to an actual online supermarket and found that increasing the proportion of non-alcoholic drinks that shoppers were exposed to made a meaningful difference to their alcohol selection. Though we’d need to confirm these findings using only a real online supermarket, they are very promising.”

Growing at a pace

While the current market for alcohol-free beer, wine and spirits represents only a small share of the global alcohol industry, it is rapidly growing. For example, low and no-alcohol beer currently accounts for 3% of the total beer market, but this is forecast to increase by nearly 13% per year over the next 3 years and is the fastest growing drinks segment in the UK.

Senior author Dr Gareth Hollands added:

“Supermarkets typically stock a wider range of alcoholic drinks than non-alcoholic alternatives aimed at adults, but this is slowly changing. Our results suggest that if non-alcoholic options were to become the majority instead, we might expect to see substantial reductions in alcohol purchasing.”

Dr Natasha Clarke completed her PhD at the University of Liverpool in 2017 and her work focussed on alcohol-harm reduction interventions in a student population. After this she was a Research Associate for four years at the University of Cambridge in the ‘Behaviour Change by Design’ team. 

Her work focuses on designing experiments to measure the effectiveness and explore underlying mechanisms of alcohol and food interventions that alter cues in our immediate physical environments, particularly in real-world settings. Such interventions include labelling, changing the size of containers, such as wine glasses and bottles, or altering the availability of products. 

She added:

“In my role here at Bath Spa as a Psychology Lecturer I plan to continue my research on developing and evaluating interventions that change our environment to change health behaviour, as well as incorporating this policy-relevant work into my teaching”.

In her recent seminar at Bath Spa University, Dr Natasha Clarke explored whether alcohol labels can change drinking behaviour. The talk provided an overview of recent evidence on improved alcohol labels – that include health warnings and calorie information - to explore whether they can change drinking behaviour in real-world settings and was well attended.

To find out more about Dr Natasha Clarke and her research please view her profile page.

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