Cleanliness in Food Retail - What do consumers expect, what disgusts them?
An in-depth psychological study conducted by rheingold on supermarket cleanliness from the fish counter through to the chill cabinets.

Cleanliness in supermarkets – represents a very hot topic which often gets neglected in favour of discussing price and product quality issues. Having been commissioned by Ecolab GmbH to conduct an international study on the subject in France and Germany, rheingold is now able to shed some light on the issue. And research findings, which are astonishing, clearly reveal what a significant and sensitive topic ‘cleanliness in supermarkets’ is for consumers and what consequences poor cleanliness entails for stores.

Consumers see the general conditions within a store, to which cleanliness and hygiene belong, as often being neglected. This was the study’s main finding. Whereby, it must be said that supermarket cleanliness is never perfect but needs to be a ‘vibrant’ cleanliness which reflects and parallels the different product groups in an authentic and sensual way.

A productive supermarket cleanliness concept demands a healthy balance between the two extremes of being overly clean (estrangement) and not clean enough (alienation). Those who do not keep floors, shelves, windows and fresh-produce fundamentally clean or fail to keep their products tidy and clearly arranged, alienate shoppers. Shoppers feel a sense of disgust and avoid specific areas of the store, or in some cases even the store itself. But, at the other extreme, those who shine their stores to the point where shoppers perceive themselves to be ‘dirty’ and out of place imbue their shops with a soulless and illusionary feel.

Research findings show that cleanliness and hygiene represent relevant criteria for shoppers to decide for or against a supermarket. A successful cleanliness and hygiene concept guarantees shoppers a smooth and impediment-free shopping experience free from unpleasant surprises. A cleanliness concept of this kind supports the specific shopping mind state provided by a supermarket, increasing its appeal and radiance. Shopping becomes an event, a pleasant escape from day-to-day life, the pursuit of that something special for the loved ones at home, a stroll across the ‘market place’’. Store managers and personal would be well advised to approach this complex topic attentively and to pay it (more) care and attention in the future.

According to research findings six psychological dimensions to ‘vibrant’ cleanliness can be indentified which influence and build upon one another. Together they form a living co-dependency. If, in this interplay, one or more dimensions are neglected the hexagon becomes imbalanced and both the shopping experience and shopping mind states begin to dull.

The obligatory virtues of basic cleaning and product layout make this particularly evident. Both belong to the consumer’s understanding of basic cleanliness and order and provide them with reassurance and guidance. Without reassurance and guidance, providing a good feel, caring for and tending to products cannot work well. Where discarded boxes, dirty floors or grimy walls are flooded in warm light or, for the sake of simplicity, painted in a fresh colour supermarkets are not enhanced.

On the other hand, even a wonderfully clean and well laid out warehouse remains a warehouse. Store managers who want to make their stores more appealing need a coherent general concept. Floor space needs to be re-divided and furnished, shelf systems reviewed and cleaning systems analysed and adapted, lights replaced and staff put through training. True expertise in dealing with goods and customers can only be achieved this way.

A close look at the different parts of the store In the study different sections of the supermarket were researched on a one for one basis. This revealed the following problem areas which shoppers were particularly critical of:

Entrance area (dirty floors, grimy shopping trolleys)

Fresh-product counters (perished and damaged fruit and vegetables, fruit flies)

Dairy products displays (damaged tin foil lids on pots of yoghurt, the smell of sour milk)

Deep freeze displays (partially defrosted frozen products, misshaped packaging)

Appearance of staff (unkempt hair, dirty aprons, dirty hands)

Checkout (grimy conveyors, unkempt cashiers)

As an example, let’s take a look at the checkout. The checkout marks the culmination of the ‘expedition’ around the supermarket for every customer – forcing consumers to stand still at the conveyor puts a stop to independent freedom of movement and forces consumers to accept unwanted and unwelcome restriction. Evasive action, as is possible in other areas of the store, is not possible here.

At the cash ‘register’, consumers have a lot of time to spend in unfavourable circumstances and they therefore broaden their tunnel vision to take in every trace of poor cleanliness. Is the conveyor which is about to come into contact with ‘my’ goods dirty or does it get cleaned regularly? Is the area around the checkout grimy or sticky and are there unwanted products lying around? Are the cashiers unkempt and unfriendly? It feels uncomfortable to see the products the customer has personally selected now going through ‘alien’ dirty hands.

One thing is certain: Whoever provides customers with a feeling of well-being in this ‘no-way¬-out’ checkout situation engenders positive memories, even if other sections of the supermarket reveal deficiencies.


The study results show that cleanliness and hygiene are relevant decision-making criteria in deciding for or against a super/hypermarket. A successful cleanliness and hygiene concept guarantees consumers that shopping is trouble-free, smooth and devoid of unpleasant surprises. A cleanliness concept of this kind supports the supermarket’s specific shopping mind states and improves its attractiveness and radiance. Shopping becomes an event, a pleasant escape from everyday life, and a hunt for that little extra for the loved ones at home, a stroll across the marketplace. Thus, store managers and staff would do well to approach these issues attentively and to pay them (more) attention and care in the future.

Background to research

Overall, 75 rheingoldInterviews™ were conducted in five cities (GER: Munich, Hamburg, Cologne; F: Paris, Toulouse). rheingoldInterviews™ are unique in that respondents are, metaphorically speaking, put on the couch for two hours. In these two hours the interviewer takes time in joining the respondent on a journey of discovery into the topic of exploration. This safe and intensive interview setting gives respondents the opportunity to talk about anything that comes to their minds concerning the topic under discussion. They are free to express personal preferences, personal ‘quirks’, desires and dreams as well as things that are unpleasant, embarrassing and unwanted.

Moreover, half of the rheingoldInterviews™ were supplemented by accompanied shopping. When conducting accompanied shopping rheingold applies participatory observation - a method that is distinguished by the researcher personally taking part in the shopping process. Here the goal is to expose aspects of the object of enquiry that might not be accessible via the interview. As will be demonstrated later, findings yielded by participation or direct experience of shopping situations provide clues which act as aids to understanding the issue in psychological terms. All in all, over 150 hours of interview material and about 70 hours of shopping descriptions were analysed by graduate psychologists.

© 2015 rheingold