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College of Human Ecology

Amber Ziegler researches grocery shopping decisions in older adults

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Amber ZieglerAmber Ziegler, senior in family studies and human services, has been accompanying older adults on their grocery shopping trips to learn more about their shopping habits and decisions. Her research will add information to a neglected subject area.

Ziegler is working with Mary Meck Higgins, associate professor of human nutrition, on a pilot study researching the shopping habits of older adults. She individually interviewed 13 Manhattan-area residents who were between the ages of 54 to 87 as they shopped at a grocery store of their choice.

"What we wanted was for the participants to talk or think aloud as they were shopping so that we could find out what was influencing their decisions," Ziegler said.

Older adults "deliberate shoppers"

Ziegler joined the participants to learn about their shopping process, the factors that influence their purchasing decisions and their cooking habits. Her preliminary data shows that the participants are deliberate shoppers. They typically use a shopping list, frequently cook at home and cook for one or two people. They emphasized that their meal portion sizes have changed from when they raised a family.

"Now, they either buy less, store food or cook smaller portions," Ziegler said. "Several participants said they have pantries, and they store extra bread and meat in their freezers."

When shopping for meat, several participants said the portion sizes of the packaged items were too large, Ziegler said. One participant could only find a package of four pork chops when she just needed to buy two, so she decided not to buy meat at all because she would not use it quickly.

Is milk jug too heavy?

Physical obstacles also affected the shoppers, such as how high items were placed on shelves. Additionally, Higgins said packaging was a factor; for shoppers wanting a gallon of milk, some bought two half gallons because the gallon size was too heavy to lift.

Ziegler said many shoppers mentioned health factors, such as diabetes, high blood cholesterol and cholesterol, that affected their shopping choices.

When entering the grocery store, Ziegler said every participant walked straight ahead or turned right; none turned left. Produce usually was in the front of the store, and this was the area that most participants shopped first. She asked the shoppers how they chose what fresh produce to buy. One participant actually tasted an item before deciding to buy it.

Ziegler also asked the shoppers if they were purchasing items based on price, and she found that they seemed to not look at price per unit, but at total price. She said participants shopped for less expensive products and most were not brand loyal.

Conducted follow-up interviews

In the second phase of the pilot project, after the in-store interview, Ziegler called participants later in the week and did a follow-up interview. She asked questions about their cooking habits, such as cooking appliances, recipe use and how often the participants dined out during a week.

Higgins said she wanted to expand her prior research on grandparents by looking at their shopping and cooking habits, particularly for grandparents raising their grandchildren full time. However, she found that little information was known and decided to focus first on older adults in general. Ziegler's project serves as a pilot study for the future project and will provide information on the subject since not much is known, including in both national and international literature.

The researchers are completing a written report of their work, and Ziegler gave a poster presentation of her research for the College of Human Ecology Honors Program. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funded the project.

To teach in Asia

Ziegler will pursue a teaching opportunity in Asia after graduating in May, and then she plans to pursue graduate studies. Though she is unsure of her future career plans, she said after her experiences at K-State she is considering teaching at a university.

"Having a research experience as an undergraduate and getting to do pieces of graduate-level work has been perfect," she said. "If people are interested in continuing their education, I think it is really important that they be involved in undergraduate research."

Ziegler volunteered with a mission organization during summer 2007 in Tanzania. She is a dual degree student with Manhattan Christian College where she also will graduate in May with a bachelor's in Bible and family ministry.

Prepared by Media Relations

This article was posted on Wednesday, May 13, 2009, and is filed under Family Studies & Human Services.