The Secret Life of Shopping Lists

Bryan Roberts

I’m now into my seventh month as a temporary employee at a Tesco superstore in north-west London. Initially taken on as part of the huge hiring spree that Tesco initiated as part of its response to COVID-related staff absence against the backdrop of surging demand / panic-buying, I’ve somehow lasted this long despite the vast majority of permanent staff having since returned to the store.

Over this period, I’ve faced a succession of steep learning curves as I’ve switched departments, taken on new roles and provided holiday cover for several colleagues. So far, I’ve worked on dairy, produce, grocery, checkouts, self-checkouts, the customer service desk, stock control, reductions, the front door and trolleys, generally doing pretty well in every role with the exception of self-checkouts where I was an unmitigated disaster.

Working on trolleys, while on the face of it a mundane, low-skilled and repetitive task, has actually been very rewarding. It has been good for my tan; good for my fitness (around 30,000 steps a day shifting varying weights of metal around a car park); good for my morale (you get the opportunity to help less able customers and to have some fantastic conversations with some fascinating people); and good for my understanding of shoppers.

This elevation of shopper insight has been provided by the fact that, as well as having to pick up and dispose of trolley trash like face masks, disposable gloves, banana skins, cauliflower leaves, packaging, cigarette packs and leaves, I have also been able to accumulate a rather fine selection of discarded shopping lists.

Admittedly, the sample size might be a little bit shaky (n = 80), but to be honest, I’ve got away with much lower sample sizes in the past. Sample size notwithstanding, I think I’ve seen enough of them to be able to draw some hopefully interesting conclusions about shopper mindsets and behaviours, not least because I’ve also been able to witness at first hand shopper behaviour at the shelf.

Why bother?

Why do I think this is a worthwhile piece of analysis? In a past life, I worked with major brands, attempting to establish how they could find themselves on more shopping lists and in more shopping baskets. This work often took a similar path (and I will apologise now for having to activate the jargon klaxon at this point).

Let’s take spirits Brand X as an example. Firstly, we would endeavour to establish which consumption occasions Brand X could participate in. Examples could include narrow or broad occasions like gifting, dinner, picnics, barbecues, watching sports on TV, parties, Christmas etc.

The next stage would be to evaluate physical and mental availability. Mental availability is a way of assessing whether or not Brand X (or the spirits category itself) would even cross someone’s mind for a particular consumption occasion. While Brand X might be highly relevant for someone looking to get a Father’s Day gift and therefore would be top of mind in the ‘consideration set’ for that occasion, it might equally be the case that spirits and Brand X might not even register as a possibility for watching the World Cup final on TV with your friends.

The next factor to evaluate would be physical availability. If Brand X is a possibility for that Father’s Day gift, the potential sale could be hamstrung if Brand X is not available in stores or is not in a prominent instore position.

For both mental and physical availability, there are sets of triggers and barriers. For Brand X, mental availability barriers might include a simple lack of awareness, the fact that the spirits category can be intimidating, that people are unsure about portion control or mixers and that beer and wine are top of mind for some occasions. Physical barriers could be that spirits are behind the counter in many stores or that the spirits section is rarely visited. Triggers could consist of advertising Brand X for various occasions, creating new product formats such as ready-to-drink pre-mixed cans, launching a price promotion or ensuring that Brand X is in prominent instore locations via on-floor displays at salient times.

Shopping lists matter, I believe, as the are a crystallisation of the transformation of planned consumption occasions into shopper missions. However, they are created before the shopper enters the store and are therefore a list of intentions rather than a list of purchases. There is much that can happen before the intention becomes an item in the shopping basket and this is where factors such as shopper marketing and price promotions are so impactful.

I’ve seen many shoppers impulse buy items purely because they are on an FSDU at key locations in the store. Equally, I’ve seen swathes of customers dump an item on their shopping list because a broadly equivalent or substitutable product is on special offer.

Either way, the shopping lists I’ve compiled supply, I hope, some interesting insights into how shoppers plan, how they think, how they regard brands, how they shop and how they buy.

To list or not to list

I have been pleasantly surprised as a Luddite in this digital era to discover the enduring use of paper shopping lists. Granted, I’ve seen hundreds of shoppers traversing the store smartphone in hand, deleting items off the shopping lists on their devices. I’ve also seen folks wondering their way around the store with no list whatsoever, filling trolleys with a mix of planned and unplanned purchases. That said, the written shopping list is a lingering presence instore and it’s been remarkable to see how many shopping trips are guided by a scrawled-on ragged piece of paper.

It might be a slightly irrelevant sidenote, but I have become genuinely intrigued by the choice of shopping list material deployed. The vast majority are completed on pages torn from notepads, jotters or exercise books, but other notable formats have included:

  • Envelopes
  • Post-Its
  • The back of invoices / utility bills
  • Pages from obsolete diaries
  • The back of a Gujarati lyric sheet
  • Special pads designed for shopping lists (‘shopping list’ printed at the top of each page)
  • Segments cut from old cereal boxes
  • Kitchen towel
  • The reverse of sheet music
  • The back of a flyer for a performance of Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’

Perhaps the most elite format for a shopping list I encountered was an A4 print-out that included an extensive list of categories and sub-categories within a standard supermarket, enabling the shopper to cross unwanted categories and sub-categories out, circle products they wanted and add annotations for missing items not included in the template. I suspect that this template was printed off from a website, most probably in Ireland as the list included brands like Kerrygold and Guinness. There’s a slim possibility it is derived from a homemade Excel sheet, in which case my respect for this particular shopper goes up a few notches.


An aspect that I found really interesting was how the planners of shopping trips organised their lists. While some lists resembled a Joycean stream of consciousness with little or no discernible order, others were segmented by category, mainly into produce, chilled, ambient, frozen, household, drinks and health & beauty.

Although a number of Tesco customers also shop in other supermarkets – most likely Lidl, M&S, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s in this particular store – it was noteworthy that many shoppers ordered their category subsets into the flow of this particular Tesco outlet, clearly having a mental map of the flow of the store as they planned their shopping trip. For me, this reinforces that fact that shoppers are a creature of habit and that, based on the total absence of some categories on the more extensive lists, many of them are totally disinterested (on most shopping trips) in some categories like pet, soft drinks, alcohol and confectionery. It also hints at entrenched loyalty: shoppers that have memorised a store layout are obviously dedicated customers.

Consumption occasions

One thing that surprised me was just how few references there were to specific consumption occasions, either explicitly or implied. When these occasions were spelled out, it was interesting that the list of items to meet these needs were omitted or included multiple options. One shopper mentioned ‘Saturday tea’ as an occasion without specifying the solution, suggesting that they would make their minds up while in the store. Likewise, other lists included ‘dinners’ with no real hint as to what that might entail. One splendidly specific consumption occasion shone through however: ‘McVitie’s or chocolate for cycling’.

Shopper missions

One well-documented side effect of COVID has been the return of the big weekly shop and Tesco, like the other big supermarkets, has been a beneficiary, gaining market share from the discounters for the first time in living memory. This is evidenced by the presence of massive shopping lists: full sides of A4 with 40 – 70 specific items.

That said, there is still plenty of proof that the top-up shop is still going strong: I’ve seen plenty of lists with three to five specific items that are probably acting as in-fill trip between bigger shops online or instore.

Menu planning

Despite the fact that consumption has dramatically swung from out of home to in home thanks to folk working from home and sporadic school closures, I was surprised to see that there was very little evidence of meal or menu planning on the lists I encountered. That’s not to say that these plans do not exist – it is indeed likely that people plan meals in advance but that these plans might be documented elsewhere or stored mentally.

Also, most households have a limited repertoire of meals or recipes (the typical household has four – five meals/recipes on permanent loop), so it is most probably the case that detailed menu planning has been rendered superfluous thanks to the grinding repetition that defines British mealtimes.

There were a few lists that were clearly centred around one particular meal or recipe (e.g. Monday dinner: ricotta cheese 100g, cherry tomatoes, Aberdeen Angus Lean beef mince 5% fat, dried macaroni 300g, tin tomatoes with onion & herbs) while one customer had their forthcoming week gloriously mapped out in advance:


  • M&S lunch (I will overlook this brazen treachery and disloyalty)
  • Pasta


  • Omelette
  • Dinner out


  • Beanburgers


  • Chilli con carne


  • Thai curry


  • Pasta


  • Pizza

This list also highlighted the fact that many parents are having to cater for the differing dietary requirements of their children: Ethan apparently requires specific crisps, while his sister Eva needs particular jelly, wraps and pizza.

Deferred decisions

While most shopping lists were a succession of very definite purchase intentions, others were intriguingly vague, suggesting that plenty of decisions were going to be made at the shelf, often with a pleasing dose of conditionality such as items being nice, on promotion or with long dates.

Some examples of these deferred decisions would include: White meat (fish or chicken), ready meals, good cheddar, nice steak, dinners (4 or 5), Hovis wholemeal loaf (only if you can’t get choc puffs), Pineapple Jaffa Cakes (only if on offer), popcorn or crisps, couple of cheeses, stir fry something, salad bits?, cabbage Sunday if nice, wine?, ready meals x 3 check date and fish + meat.

Little branding on show

A worrying conclusion for brand marketeers would be that very, very few of the shopping lists made any reference to brands. Given that many categories have overwhelming branded market leaders, I would have expected to see many big household name brands putting in an appearance. But, instead of lists featuring Heinz, Hellmann’s or Heineken, I was confronted by lists mentioning ketchup, mayonnaise and beer. Of course, it might be the case that these brands ended up in the basket or trolley, but – with private label accounting for at least 50% of volume – it’s just as likely that requirements were sated by Tesco’s own brand range.

Some brands did make it onto the lists though, with many of these being incredibly specific niche buys (such as denture adhesive and indigestion relief). For the record, the brands that made it onto the shopping list roll of honour comprised: Heinz (spaghetti hoops), Arial, Cathedral City, Pot Noodle, Cheese Strings, Hula Hoops, McCoy’s, Philadelphia, Coca-Cola (always written as Coke – two mentions), Birds Eye (peas – two mentions), Activia, Special K, Linda McCartney, Dr. Oetker, Pink Stuff, Frazzles, Vanish, Fairy (four mentions), Jus Roll, Lurpak (two mentions), Bisto, Splenda, Jaffa Cakes, Bold, Colgate (two mentions), Pepsi, Steradent, Flora, Butchers (dog food), Fruit Shoot (two mentions), HP, Oxo, Hovis, Warburtons, Tabasco, Gaviscon, PG Tips, Cravendale, Buscopan, Yakult, Richmond, Galaxy, Plenty, Anchor, Fruit & Fibre, Tetley, Whole Earth, Mr Kipling, Nimble, Sure, Pimm’s, Weetabix, Savlon and Dolmio.

Anyway, I hope that this pulsating festival of mundanity has been faintly interesting. It’s worth remembering that, in an era where the commentary centres around digital and big data, there is still a place for small data and physical observational insight.

Taken from Linkedin

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