Pay cash to win junk food war

CORNELL (US) — Pain of payment can curb impulsive buying, but only when purchasing vice foods like cookies and chips, not virtuous ones like milk and bread.

Because consumers are more reluctant to part with bills and coins than to use credit cards, paying with cash may be an effective way to avoid buying junk food, according to a new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

”The pain of paying in cash can curb impulsive urges to purchase unhealthy food products,” says Manoj Thomas, assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University. “Credit card payments, in contrast, are relatively painless and weaken impulse control.”


The study found no difference when consumers used credit and debit cards.

“This is surprising,” Thomas says, “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.”

Vice foods, like Oreos and Coca-Cola, are perceived as unhealthy and impulsive to buy—shoppers relate to them on a purely visceral level. Virtue foods such as Quaker Oatmeal and Aquafina Pure Water are seen on a rational level as utilitarian products.

“So vice spending is more susceptible to pain of payment,” Thomas says.

The findings not only showcase an interesting quirk of consumer psychology but also may help curb the epidemic of obesity, Thomas says. For some consumers, the use of cash over cards might help them cut down on impulsive and unhealthy food purchases.

Thomas noted that various technological advances in the near future may also help consumers at the cash register.

“I believe and hope that we will soon start seeing technological advances in credit and debit cards that help consumers better manage their spending decisions,” he says. “It might be useful to have an LCD chip in a card that shows the total monthly spending thus far, or the cumulative credit.”

Researchers at the University at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Binghamton contributed to the study.

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