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7 September 2017 - The Guardian - Supersize us: upselling is fuelling the obesity epidemic, warns report

Sarah Boseley, Health editor
One in three people buys a larger coffee, more fries or added cream each week as a result of “upselling”, which experts say is fuelling the obesity epidemic.

Most people in the UK – 78% of those questioned in a survey – say they are asked in restaurants, fast food outlets and stores at least once a week if they want to “go large”, opting for more food or bigger portions, according to a report.

Those who succumb to upselling get an extra 55% more calories on average by paying just a fraction more: scaling up the meal or the coffee or buying a cut-price larger chocolate bar raises the cost by an average of 17%, says the report. Those calories add up to a weight gain of about 2.2kg (5lb) every year, it estimates. Young people aged 18-24 are the most likely to experience upselling, consuming an extra 750 calories a week that could potentially lead them to put on 5kg (11lb) of extra weight in a year.

The report comes from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), together with Slimming World, who say upselling is a routine technique used to persuade customers to consume and spend more.

Public health experts have called on the government to take action against buy-one-get-one-free promotions in supermarkets, but upselling has gone under the radar.

Upselling, says the report, is the act of persuading a customer to buy something additional or more expensive. “The term is a relatively new concept that has only been widely used since mass-marketing was introduced during the 1980s,” it says. “Studies have shown that when people are presented with larger portion sizes, they consume more and increase their calorie intake.”

Restaurant staff, speaking anonymously, describe in the report how they are trained and incentivised to upsell. One cafe worker says that if they are asked for a latte, “I will reply with ‘large?’ The confidence of insinuating that a large is in fact what a typical customer orders often nudges the customer into [ordering] the bigger and slightly more expensive drink.” If somebody asks for a cake, the response is: “Is that with cream or ice cream today?”

A fast food worker says staff are trained always to ask if the customer would like a meal. “We often get reminded of hourly goals of how many large meals we’re expected to sell.” A pub worker alerts customers to offers, such as “would you like a portion of chips? They’re half price” and three starters for £12 or three desserts for £7. A table of two people will often end up with an extra plate. “The major incentive for upselling is a team competition, with a prize for the winning team,” the worker says.

The report urges the government to cut business rates for outlets that undertake not to train staff to upsell unhealthy food and drink nor to link staff payments to upselling.

“Obesity is the public health challenge of our generation and if not addressed urgently could tip over the point of no return,” said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the RSPH. “Incentivising businesses to help keep their customers healthy by offering reduced business rates could be a positive step to help reduce the burden placed on our health care system by obesity-related illness. It also gives businesses the opportunity to step up to the plate and take their fair share of responsibility for the public’s health and wellbeing.

“Almost everyone can relate to the feeling of being pressured into buying extra calories through upselling. Our latest report shows the extent to which these extra calories can really add up, often without us noticing. We hope that through this work the public can become more aware of how businesses target them with upselling and help people to maintain a healthy weight.”