Should grocers take a lead role supporting weight loss efforts online?

Photo: Getty Images/milindri
Aug 26, 2021

Americans are dealing with an ongoing obesity crisis and surveys continually show the majority want to lose weight. Can grocers help now that they offer increased online access?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) recently sought to identify design features online grocery stores could add “to support the goal of eating healthier for weight loss.” The study was conducted in light of the rapid growth in online grocery.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

The researchers first interviewed adults about eating healthy for weight loss to learn about their shopping habits, with a focus on their nutrition-related needs. The study found that shoppers struggled with planning, purchasing and preparing meals that are tasty, nutritious, easy to cook and affordable.

Based on the initial findings, researchers identified four features online grocery stores could include to support shoppers: (1) a shopping cart nutrition rating tool, (2) a healthy meal planning tool, (3) an interactive healthy eating inspiration aisle and (4) healthy shopping preference settings.

Study participants provided their thoughts on each shopping feature and said they preferred the following:

  • A “healthy shopping” setting that would allow them to set their personal preferences for the types of foods they want to purchase in limited amounts (e.g., sugary foods, salty foods, etc.) and the types of foods they want to purchase in plentiful amounts (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.). 
  • A healthy meal planning tool that would provide meal ideas and recipes tailored to their family’s taste, nutrition, convenience and price preferences.
  • A nutrition cart tool that would rate the nutrition level of the shopping cart and provide recommendations for how to improve the quality (e.g., swap lightly salted or unsalted peanuts for regular salted peanuts).

A perusal of various websites shows grocers offering guides to healthy eating, access to nutritional specialists, balanced meal planning tips and help with special diets, such as vegan, keto-friendly or gluten-free, but weight-loss tips tied to healthy eating appeared to be absent. A wide range of popular subscription-driven apps, including Noom, WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and My Fitness Pal, offer personalized nutrition and diet plans.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why don’t grocers offer more advice and online tools that can help shoppers with weight management? What do you think of the online feature suggestions cited in the study?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This study highlights a shopper need state largely going unmet, and an opportunity for grocers to strengthen their relationship with their weight-/health-conscious customers."
"Give shoppers a healthy app if they want, make nutrition information available, but stay out of it otherwise."
"If public health were the real issue, grocers would have to cut their stores in half (at least) and eliminate key departments altogether. "

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18 Comments on "Should grocers take a lead role supporting weight loss efforts online?"

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Shep Hyken

Eating healthier doesn’t necessarily mean eating (and buying) less. It means eating and buying healthier. If a grocer helps the customer, the customer may see that store as a part of their lifestyle, rather than just a place to buy food. That makes an even tighter connection with the customer, which is good for repeat and loyal business.

The online features allow customers to plan out their purchase. Many customers do this already. And if customers decide they want to plan out their healthy meals ahead of time, they are going to do it anyway, so why shouldn’t it be from the place they are already doing business with?

Jenn McMillen

Grocers should stay out of this if it comes to labeling foods on shelves. What may be healthy/acceptable for one (e.g. bacon for Keto) is a big no-no for another (e.g. low fat). Trying to be the arbiter of that debate is a no-win situation. Some grocery stores, like Market Street, color-code their shelves, with brown shelves for organic and “healthier” options. In this arena, let consumers make their own decisions.

Bob Amster

This question raises another question. Can grocers encourage people to eat healthfully in order to prevent premature death and not encourage people at risk to wear masks and act responsively to prevent death by contagion?

Raj B. Shroff
I think it’s a great question. It probably doesn’t happen for a number of reasons. Number one is that it’s not a priority for grocers. Unless there is a macro level shift in the grocer’s philosophy, like what CVS did to transform into CVS Health, you will only see small efforts here and there. They have probably tested it and it did poorly. Either because what people “say” and how they “behave” is different — or because a good plan was not executed well. There are likely credibility issues with grocers and there is so much noise in the space, people get confused and by the time they are ready to shop, they just punt those healthy choices down the road (to the next trip). If someone can get this right (likely an upstart or Amazon) and when there is more of an ecosystem (Whoop, Apple Fitness) and integration and food is easier to track, the guidance area will explode. The online features cited are great. But “healthy shopping” is subjective. I do think adding… Read more »
Venky Ramesh

Weight loss is more of an individual problem than a household problem – grocers’ customers are households more than individuals. Getting into personalized weight loss would require insights into consumer-level preferences and consumption needs, which is not easy, unless the grocers approach it with an ecosystem view, partnering with others who have that data that they can seamlessly integrate into their systems. Another way the grocers can really drive value is to pass on the consumer preferences and insights to manufacturers and work with them to improve their products to avoid the risk of getting swapped out.

Neil Saunders

I like the idea of arming consumers with tools to make decisions which support their goals. This could be particularly valuable for those looking to lose weight. However there are two points of challenge here. First, the ways in which people lose weight and the diets they undertake vary enormously; this makes it hard to make universal recommendations. Second, it is not the primary job of grocers to make consumers eat healthily – people need to take personal responsibility for their own diets, but they can support them with tools and advice.

Jeff Hall

This study highlights a shopper need state largely going unmet, and an opportunity for grocers to strengthen their relationship with their weight and health-conscious customers.

A handful of grocers, including Hy-Vee and H-E-B, have developed online and in-store programs focused on nutritional counseling, healthy meal planning and overall individual wellness. H-E-B offers one-on-one sessions with registered dietitians, personalized weight-loss health testing and customized meal plans, both virtually and in-person.

Hy-Vee has taken health and well-being services a step further, with their online platform Healthie. Shoppers are able to access dietitian services, meal planning, heart health screenings, join a plant-based eating group, and through their Healthy Habits menu program access dietitian-inspired simple recipes, convenient grocery lists, balanced meal plans and weekly one-on-ones with a dietitian to track progress, ask questions and stay motivated.

These two retailers appear to be the exception when it comes to online tools helping their customers lose weight and make healthier meal choices, leaving plenty of opportunity for others to recognize and address the needs and expectations of this customer segment.

Ryan Mathews

Not to point out the obvious, but isn’t it a little hypocritical to offer tools for healthy eating AND sell heavily sugared cereals, canned products loaded with salt, any number of soft drinks, etc., etc.? I know the argument, “Our job is to provide consumers with the widest selection of choices available. Which ones they select are up to them.” But — let’s be serious. Nobody needs tools to figure out that eating a dozen donuts, four large bags of salted snacks, and drinking a 12-pack of fully sugared, fully caffeinated soft drinks a day isn’t the best way to lose weight. If public health were the real issue, grocers would have to cut their stores in half (at least) and eliminate key departments altogether. So, while the ideas in the study are fine, let’s just say for now this is a battle grocers should probably not jump into — at least with both feet.

Georganne Bender

When you are on a weight loss or healthy eating journey any guidance on how to plan and prepare healthy meals is a big help.

Information online is widely available but it takes time to research. In-store help in choosing, gathering, and preparing healthy meals and snacks is what I would most appreciate. The interactive healthy inspiration aisle sounds intriguing, but there is a fine line between making customers feel good while shopping and making them feel alienated. These tools are a choice, still I hope that these additions to the shopping experience will supply the former.

What I could really use is a healthy eating tool to use while traveling. Choices at hotel restaurants and convention centers are the worst.

David Spear

Clearly there’s an opportunity to create an enhanced shopping experience with tools and information that can help guide a shopper to purchase healthier options, from individual product information to full meal plans. The decision for grocers is the opportunity cost of investing in these offerings or enhancing existing capabilities around AI algorithms for product substitution, margin erosion, and overall customer experience while ordering via online or app. Right now, there’s more emphasis on the latter.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Laura Davis-Taylor
Founder, Branded Ground
3 months 12 days ago

It may sound ridiculous to some of us, but much of the obesity crisis comes from a lack of real education around the choices that are made. I’m engaged to a medical practitioner and it’s astounding how many people come to see him that honest to goodness just don’t seem to have a clue that the food choices that they make are making them sick.

For those of us that don’t need tools like this — well, we don’t need them. For those of us that do or simply want an easier way to do better, why not? I LOVE the recipe feature that Kroger does with Instacart and use it every single week. I’m a Publix person, but I shop with Kroger because of those dang recipes. If I could select only healthy options I would. Get my drift? This is not for everyone; it’s for those that want or need it — ignore it if it’s irrelevant.

Evan Snively

At some point the burden of responsibility needs to rest on the consumer. Education on healthy eating is available, but needs to be digested (no pun intended) and practiced on a deeper level than labels and filters – which could steer many uneducated, albeit well-intentioned, consumers in the wrong direction.

If grocers want to get involved they can host healthy eating clinics and prep classes to get the hand raisers. If they are able to do this, and even if it is a loss-leader to lower the barrier to entry, I think that they will see quick returns.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I’m imagining the first time an online program tells a shopper not to buy Apple Jacks or Cocoa Puffs and instead buy a “healthy” cereal. How fast does Kellogg or General Mills pull their support from that retailer? Give shoppers a healthy app if they want, make nutrition information available, but stay out of it otherwise.

Oliver Guy

Great question. Morally it seems appropriate for grocers to provide this help — but consumer goods companies may also have a part to play. In some cases action taken by organisations can be because there is longer-term concern that legislative action may be taken by government organisations.

It could well become a form of differentiation for a specific grocer. Given Amazon’s moves in terms of healthcare and the relationship between eating and health, it may be that this becomes something Whole Foods starts to offer.

John Karolefski

Grocers should stay away from this area. Grocery stores stock copious amounts of soda, sweets, baked goods, pizza, ice cream, etc — all of which contribute to the obesity problem in America. Should stores sell these products? Sure, for discriminating and healthy shoppers who have self control. But setting up the retailer of these goods as a “weight management advisor” is duplicitous and perhaps absurd.

Mark Price

Grocers are worried about “shaming” consumers with weight loss content, and are also worried about the decline in revenue from the packaged, salty, sugary snacks that represent so much margin.

The online features suggested in the study will be helpful from a branding position, but are unlikely to be heavily utilized. Partnerships with the weight loss apps to provide custom meal kits and delivery may be more effective.

Karen Wong

I don’t see how grocers can avoid wading in. Personally it goes hand-in-hand with minimizing household food waste and companies doing home delivery are increasingly eating into the regular grocery trip. I know that the meal kit service I use from time to time offers a growing list of quality private label staples. And the service definitely highlights calories, how clean a meal is and how easy a meal is to cook.

So many I know who have been working from home have turned to meal kits to increase the variety of dishes and minimize the work involved in planning a meal. While I might prefer to go to the grocery store, I often don’t have time during the week and I hate the amount of waste that often happens when I buy too much.

Matt Krepsik

I believe that grocers and apps have the potential to offer more value and assistance to consumers around discovery. With the limitless shelf of e-commerce and the flexibility that digital experiences provides, grocers have an opportunity to break the mold of traditional categorical definitions that have organized and sorted the aisles and shelves in stores for decades. Whether it is weight loss, health and wellness, vegetarian, vegan, keto or the countless trends and preferences that underpin consumer choice, the one dimensional model is ripe for disruption.

"This study highlights a shopper need state largely going unmet, and an opportunity for grocers to strengthen their relationship with their weight-/health-conscious customers."
"Give shoppers a healthy app if they want, make nutrition information available, but stay out of it otherwise."
"If public health were the real issue, grocers would have to cut their stores in half (at least) and eliminate key departments altogether. "

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