Calorie Counts, Number-Sounds Tweaking Our Appetites

Since calorie counting was mandated in New York City in 2008, nutritionists, libertarians and foodies have watched to see if it changed consumers' appetites and orders. One well-circulated experiment found that the calorie counts had zero impact. Atlantic bloggers Megan McArdle and Corby Kummer debated the implications (Megan's saw her skepticism validated; Corby noted that some companies had changed ingredients under the harsh light of calorie data.)

But this research from NBER, by Bryan Bollinger, Phillip Leslie, and Alan Sorensen, finds that publishing calorie counts can change our incentives after all:


We study the impact of mandatory calorie posting on consumers' purchase decisions, using detailed data from Starbucks. We find that average calories per transaction falls by 6%. The effect is almost entirely related to changes in consumers' food choices--there is almost no change in purchases of beverage calories. There is no impact on Starbucks profit on average, and for the subset of stores located close to their competitor Dunkin Donuts, the effect of calorie posting is actually to increase Starbucks revenue. Survey evidence and analysis of commuters suggest the mechanism for the effect is a combination of learning and salience.

And so long as we're on the topic of changing buyers' behavior, here's another experiment about how the sound of certain prices can make consumers think a price sounds like a better or worse discount (via the New York Times):

In one experiment, researchers told consumers the regular and sale prices of a product, asked them to repeat the sale price to themselves, and then, a few minutes later, told them to estimate the size of the discount in percentage terms. Products with "small-sounding" sale prices (like $2.33) seemed like better deals than products with "big-sounding" sales prices (like $2.22).