Retail Shopper Behaviour: An Evolutionary Explanation [Infographic]

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Retail Shopper Behaviour: An Evolutionary Explanation [Infographic]

As evolved as we are, human beings are still motivated by antiquated forces. Our survival instincts, including the desire to eat, reproduce and be safe, can all affect our shopping habits. SBXL looks at how insights into our lizard brain — the part responsible for the most basic survival instincts — can help to explain retail shopper behaviour.




Our most basic human instinct is to survive. Although the modern world is far safer than the one our ancestors evolved in, we’re still just about as paranoid and fearful as they were. Even our weekly grocery shop is shaped by our desire for self-preservation.

  • Consume High-Calorie Foods

Within the need to survive is the desire to drink, eat and breathe. In prehistoric times, our ancestors would opt for high-calorie foods as a survival mechanism, because food was often scarce. Consuming extra calories to prepare for times of hardship has spilt over into the present day. However, as most of us have easy access to food, this can be dangerous for the waistline.

In terms of retail shopper behaviour, this translates to favouring high-fat, calorie-dense foods. If you find yourself craving red meat and processed foods, you can thank your ancestors for that.

  • Avoid Harm

As humans, we want to ensure that we and our families are safe from harm, and this extends to what we eat. Own-brand goods with less attractive packaging can set off our internal triggers.

One study found that 73% of interviewed consumers said they rely on packaging to assist with their shopping decisions, which shows the importance of label design. Our minds tell us that lower quality packaging could indicate a poor-quality product. The desire to buy branded products, therefore, is based on the belief that the branding is representative of a decent quality product.


Once survival is guaranteed, our next instinct is to pass on our genetic material. Of course, not everyone feels this urge strongly, but it’s a good starting point for explaining certain aspects of retail shopper behaviour.

  • Attract Mates

It’s a stripped-back theory of attraction, but our longing to attract potential mates can lead us to make certain purchasing decisions. Health and beauty products target our desire to increase physical attractiveness, which has been seen to relate to social status, self-esteem and positive feedback from others.

Products such as facial scrubs and tooth-whitening toothpaste sell us the idea that we could be more attractive with said products, and therefore more appealing to others. Branding that displays ‘beautiful’ individuals prompts a longing within us to achieve that status.

  • Protect Ourselves and Our Family

Our desire to protect extends beyond our preference for quality packaging. Retail shopper behaviour is shaped by our own code of ethics and morals. For example, buying ethically sourced fruit or sustainable toilet paper displays our instinct to protect our wider environment.

Most of the consumers who buy ethical products are middle-aged — the age group most likely to have young children of their own. While disposable income is also higher in this group, the theory of evolutionary protection is a potential contributing factor.


To increase our chances of appearing attractive to mates, there are a number of things we humans are wired to do. Our desire to acquire social status, as well as our need to develop in an ever-changing world, are two things that translate to the contents of our shopping baskets.

  • Acquire Status

Products that are seen as “premium” or “luxury” are attractive for several reasons. Firstly, they take advantage of our tendency to trust higher quality packaging. Secondly, they contribute to our social status and are innately connected to the concept of power.

Studies have suggested that status symbols are such because they remain out of reach to many people. Buying products out of one’s price range can help to forge an image of power and wealth beyond mere social class. Premium goods in the supermarket might, therefore, be alluring for reasons other than perceived quality.

  • Grow, Learn and Develop

In a rapidly changing world, we’re forced to develop or get left behind. Evolution, after all, is the process of changing to adapt to the world that we live in. In shopper behaviour research, this equates to the act of buying something new to us. Shaking up our routine in the form of new purchases encourages personal growth — something that every successful generation of humans has had to embrace. If you find yourself reaching for an exotic new sauce in the supermarket, it could be down to your lizard brain.

a picture of a lizard showing your lizard brains affect on the evolution of shopping

Of course, there’s far more to retail shopper behaviour than evolutionary psychology tells us, but it’s a good place to start. Once we understand our primal desires, we can start making more informed decisions in the supermarket.




SBXL understands the nuances of retail shopper behaviour, and knows that there is far more to buying patterns than evolutionary psychology. Phillip Adcock, Managing Director of SBXL, is one of the world’s leading authorities for thought leadership and genuine shopper insight. Browse our wealth of shopper behaviour research and find out how to make your product packaging maximise communication with the average shopper.