Putting the (Nutritional) Truth on Display

May 17, 2011
George Anderson

There are two basic truths in most of grocery retailing.
The first is that if the manufacturer has the money, than the retailer has
the space. The second is that what people say they buy (or want to buy) and
what they actually purchase are quite often two very different things.

A piece
on The Atlantic website included an unscientific look at product displays in
a small number of supermarkets in North Carolina to discover whether or not
the stores were putting nutritious items out front (or back) to encourage customers
to lead healthier lives. North Carolina, according to Hank Cardello, author
of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, is ranked
in the top 15 of obese states in the U.S.

What Mr. Cardello discovered on his
store visits was that 59 percent of displays (an average of 67 per location)
did not contain "better for you" products.
On the plus side, he reported that 88 percent of beverage displays included
low or no calorie options along with the highly sweetened drinks.

Also on the plus
side, Mr. Cardello pointed to a number of chains that are making progress on
the nutrition front, including Hy-Vee’s Blue Zones
checkout test, Publix with ready-to-eat nutritious meals for kids, and Walmart’s
pledge to reduce sodium in its private label.

Discussion Questions: Are grocery stores more actively involved in shoppers’ nutritional health than in the past? How much of an effect do displays of nutritious foods have on consumer purchases of those items?

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15 Comments on "Putting the (Nutritional) Truth on Display"

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Lee Peterson
10 years 8 hours ago

Ever since the addition of vitamin D to milk boosted that product’s sales mega-fold, “enhanced” product lines have been the order of the day. Forget the calorie count, it’s got Omega 3 in it! Product design, like any design, moves in trends…and “better for you” is a super-trend right now.

I am not an expert, but it is difficult to work through the noise of the product benefits you see on shelves today and determine exactly what is good for you and what is not. That fact alone, to me, tells you that there’s a lot more blow than go when it comes to the actual benefits. Buyer beware.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
10 years 8 hours ago

There is not a lot of evidence that retailers selling food are concerned about the health of their shoppers. They do appear to be interested in those consumers who buy “healthy” products. As consumers make their wants and preferences known manufacturers and retailers offer product that appeal to those preferences. Is this because the retailers are concerned about the health of their consumers or is it because they want consumers to purchase products at their stores? It may be some of both. Decisions about what products to offer is more likely driven by what the consumers perceive as healthy and will buy rather than what the retailers think will be healthy or good for their consumers.

Ryan Mathews
10 years 8 hours ago

Some stores are much better about hyping nutrition than they used to be–but that isn’t the same thing as becoming Whole Foods.

As to the consumer, people eat what they like and most people like fat, salt and sugar. This may change but it really is a generational issue. It’s unlikely someone will–short of fear of death–change the eating patterns of a lifetime. Even then we all know people who ate well and exercised right after a heart attack only to go back to steak and buttered potatoes on the anniversary of their surgery.

Food is a product of culture and stores have a limited impact on lifestyles.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
10 years 8 hours ago

Yes, supermarkets are finally seeing the light in terms of displaying and merchandising nutritious products, but the progress is still too slow. If supermarkets want to be recognized as wellness champions then they need to develop strategies and tactics to gain such recognition. Promotion and display of “better for you” products is a minimum. Offering the services of registered dietitians along with screening for diabetes and other related diet/health issues provide supermarkets with the ammunition to do battle with the drug stores who already own the health care business and have moved rapidly and deeply in the supermarket’s sweet spot.

Why shouldn’t a consumer think of the supermarket as a key resource for enhancing quality of life for the shopper and the shopper’s family? A terrific opportunity if embraced and responded to in a strategic (point of difference) fashion.

Anne Howe
10 years 8 hours ago
As much as manufacturers dislike the Nu-Val food scoring system, (because the ONQI algorithm is non-negotiable) over a dozen retailers have adopted it. Recently, its creator, David Katz, commented on a May 2011 study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health that showed that “the nutritional guidance system is associated with reduced rick of major disease or premature death.” Hard to argue against giving shoppers some sort of system by which to make decisions in the store. Other retailers are using systems as well, including Supervalu’s new Colors in Your Carriage system as part of a Nutrition IQ. It’s designed to provide “straight talk” to shoppers instead of complicated and hard to understand “claims” that manufacturers use, (which confuse shoppers as much as they help). I applaud retailers who are trying to figure this out in a way that helps shoppers. Yes, they will still put bad products on the shelf, and yes, shoppers will still buy them. What shoppers want is the choice to be in their hands, both good and bad. Shoppers… Read more »
Ben Ball
10 years 8 hours ago

I would submit a third “retailing truth” which is that successful retailers display what consumers want to buy. Sure, there are plenty of exceptions when manufacturers run super-hot deals to buy display space or the store finds itself over stocked with Easter hams. But by and large, it is the big sellers that get the display space.

Assuming the good retailers Mr. Cardello visited are following that principle, we can conclude that about half of us are interested in healthy eating all the time–or that all of us are interested in good nutrition half the time–or something in between.

Of course, the most likely answer is “something in between.” And that is where retailers can play some small role in helping us make better choices. We do respond to awareness, availability and impulse while shopping. And good merchants can create those three key ingredients for healthier alternatives. They can’t “make us drink”–and we shouldn’t expect them to. But they can certainly add to their social responsibility cred by “leading us to water.”

Ralph Jacobson
10 years 8 hours ago

Although there is more consumer interest in health/wellness and nutrition, and the fact that more grocery stores are highlighting nutritional values of their products, the consumer audience is still a minority. A greater number of American consumers still have not significantly altered their consumption to make a difference in their health. Grocers could think about ways to use some tactics of the past to get more wellness awareness in the marketplace. Jewel Food Stores had in-store “Home Economists” in the ’70s who, along with other tasks, would offer dietary assistance to shoppers in the stores.

Doug Stephens
Doug Stephens
10 years 7 hours ago

I just completed a round of research for a client heavily involved in the food continuum and it’s abundantly clear that consumers are significantly more interested in nutritional information than ever before. Among the reasons I found were that far more conditions that are treatable through diet, such as high-blood pressure and diabetes are being diagnosed earlier today than in previous generations. Secondly, as Baby Boomers work well past the age their parents retired at, they’ll be looking for “functional” foods that can actually give them greater stamina and performance.

Stores are moving in the right direction but there’s still so much more that can and likely will be done. I suspect we’ll see things like nutritional tours conducted in grocery stores to help customers tailor their diets. We’ll see growth in the number of in-store medical clinics, aimed at a holistic approach to wellness. And of course the push toward locally grown and organic foods will continue to gather momentum.

Ian Percy
10 years 7 hours ago

Furthering The Greater Good is rarely the driving force behind business decisions. Though it may cost us our health, livelihood, and environment tomorrow, we’d rather make the buck today. We seem addicted to destruction from self-inflicted wounds.

Simply displaying toxic-free product next to those infused with chemicals isn’t going to do it. I’d like to see a store divided in half–on the left all the crap we usually eat and on the right nothing but actual healthy choices. Put up big arrows at the entrance pointing to “UNHEALTHY” and “HEALTHY.” Let’s see which side “wins” and have the middle divider move left or right accordingly, like a food tug-of-war.

Cathy Hotka
10 years 7 hours ago

I love Ian Percy’s idea of dividing the store into “healthy” and “unhealthy” sides…but consumers already know what’s healthy and what isn’t. Oatmeal? Healthy. Lucky Charms? Not so much. It’s heartening that customers do seem more interested in nutrition than before, but last time I looked, people were still coming through check-out with Rocky Road ice cream and Ring-Dings.

Ben Ball
10 years 6 hours ago

Sorry, Ian. But I think you are being a bit harsh there buddy.

If I recall correctly, all that stuff you want to put on the “UNHEALTHY CRAP” side of the store is what we were eating while the average life expectancy in the U.S. went from 62 to 85 or thereabouts? Yes?

Not saying we can’t do better. Nor that nutrition played a bigger role in the increase than modern science and medicine. But “Unhealthy Crap”? Really?

Tony Orlando
10 years 5 hours ago

As there is an increase in healthier eating, consumers still want their pizza and ice cream. Nobody wants homemade potato salad made with a tofu mayonnaise dressing, while still enjoying their chips, beer, and brats. Most healthy eaters are reformed; forced to eat better due to a chronic illness, such as diabetes, which I now have.

The offerings are there but as said above, the classic junk food still outsells healthy by a mile, and always will. Who wants to live to be 100 and not enjoy the food they eat?

Bernice Hurst
10 years 5 hours ago

This story in the New York Times was all about the ways and means in which consumers are shown food’s nutritional highlights. Some are more transparent than others, highlighting some features while ignoring or even obscuring others. Foods With Benefits, or So They Say.

In addition to George’s basic truths there is the one that manufacturers and retailers promote nutritional benefits when they think it will have a good effect on their bottom line (rather than the purchaser’s bottom). As most of us know, many consumers are confused by nutritional information and although most of us “know” which foods are good, better and best for us we don’t always act on it. What a shocker….

John Karolefski
10 years 4 hours ago

To answer the discussion question: Yes, many supermarkets are more actively involved in shoppers’ nutritional health than in the past. Several have launched nutritional labels at shelf. Most of the major chains have staff nutritionists that conduct in-store tours for interested shoppers.

Should grocers have nutrition police to monitor all food and beverage displays in their supermarkets? That’s something for the trade relations folks to discuss.

The bottom line: shoppers are going buy what shoppers want to buy. You can lead them to low-fat, low-sugar, good-for-you-foods, but you can’t make them buy them.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 2 hours ago

As others have suggested, if I walk in to buy some Cheetos, I am unlikely to leave with a bag of carrot sticks. Supermarkets have a role to play in informing us about food options, and as long as the sell is “soft” and informational, the message resonates with customers. At the same time, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Educate but don’t preach.


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