Effect of Financial Incentives and Default Options on Food Choices of Adults with Low Income in Online Retail Settings: A Randomized Clinical Trial

Pasquale E. Rummo, Christina A. Roberto, Lorna E. Thorpe, Andrea B. Troxel, Brian Elbel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Importance: Despite recent growth in online redemption of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, no previous work has tested the impact of economic and behavioral economic strategies on food purchasing behaviors in an online grocery retail setting among adults with low income. Objective: To examine the extent to which financial incentives and default shopping cart options influence fruit and vegetable purchases. Design, Setting, and Participants: This randomized clinical trial used an experimental online grocery store for adults who currently or have ever received SNAP benefits. From October 7 to December 2, 2021, participants were instructed to shop for a week's worth of groceries for their household, with a budget tailored to household size; no payment was taken. Interventions: Random assignment to 1 of 4 conditions: no intervention, 50% discount on eligible fruits and vegetables, prefilled shopping carts with tailored fruit and vegetable items (ie, default options), or a combination of the discount and default options. Main Outcomes and Measures: The primary outcome was the percentage of nondiscounted dollars spent on eligible fruit and vegetables per basket. Results: Of 2744 participants, mean (SD) age was 46.7 (16.0) years, and 1447 (52.7%) identified as women. A total of 1842 participants (67.1%) reported currently receiving SNAP benefits and 1492 (54.4%) reported shopping online for groceries in the previous 12 months. Participants spent a mean (SD) 20.5% (23.5%) of total dollars on eligible fruits and vegetables. Compared with no intervention, those in the discount condition spent 4.7% (98.3% CI, 1.7%-7.7%) of more total dollars on eligible fruits and vegetables; those in the default condition, 7.8% (98.3% CI, 4.8%-10.7%) more; and those in the combination condition, 13.0% (98.3% CI, 10.0%-16.0%) more (P <.001 for all). There was no difference between the discount and the default conditions (P =.06), but the effect in the combination condition was significantly larger than both discount and default conditions (P <.001). Default shopping cart items were purchased by 679 participants (93.4%) in the default condition and 655 (95.5%) in the combination condition, whereas 297 (45.8%) in the control and 361 (52.9%) in the discount conditions purchased those items (P <.001). No variation was observed by age, sex, or race and ethnicity, and results were similar when those who reported never shopping online for groceries were excluded. Conclusions and Relevance: In this randomized clinical trial, financial incentives for fruits and vegetables and default options, especially in combination, led to meaningful increases in online fruit and vegetable purchases among adults with low income. Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT04766034.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E232371
JournalJAMA network open
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 10 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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