New ways for retailers to encourage shoppers to choose healthier foods

Aldi fruit and veg aisle

Supermarkets can influence shoppers by being selective about the range of foods they stock

From computerised healthy shopping trolleys to in-store nutritionists, supermarkets around the globe are gradually encouraging customers to make healthier food choices. Produce Business UK takes a closer look at the innovations that are already making their way into UK fresh produce aisles and how they can help today’s shoppers

Reformulating recipes

A whopping 35 tonnes of sugar is set to be removed from Sainsbury’s shopping baskets every year following the retailer’s decision to reformulate its own-brand juice drinks. The move, reveals the supermarket’s nutritionist Annie Denny, is part of a long-running and wider initiative in which Sainsbury’s is reducing the amount of saturated fat, salt and sugar within many of its products.

Denny points out that since the majority of people in the UK are either overweight or obese, the retailer asked itself the question: ‘How can we support that customer who in all likelihood is overweight or obese?’ Sainsbury’s then started a programme of reformulating both its biggest selling and staple items.

According to Jon Woolven, strategy and innovation director for retail analyst IGD, which carries out research on best practice for its food industry customers, the initiative at Sainsbury’s actually forms part of a much bigger, global retail trend.

That trend is resulting in both large and small retailers encouraging their customers to buy healthier foods. However, given the ethical debate of whether or not retailers should influence people’s choices, the industry is, Woolven claims, “a long way” from settled best practice in this area. “There’s a lot of learning going on,” he notes.

Nudging customers in the right direction

Quoting IGD research, Woolven reveals that 70% of people say they are happy for food companies to change the recipe of their products in order to make them healthier, providing they remain as tasty as before.

“Quite a few companies have pushed this too far and then had some backlash from their customers, so the general approach is to do this gradually – incremental changes that add up to a lot over a sufficient period, such as salt reduction,” Woolven explains.

With this in mind, he predicts in future retailers will rule out any “shock style” behaviour and instead subtly nudge consumers in a healthier direction. He explains: “I do not think it’s realistic to expect retailers will shock their customers but I think we will be seeing a lot more nudge-based behaviour based on the latest learning and consumer psychology.”

When reformulating products, Denny at Sainsbury’s agrees it’s key that the end product is still “something customers want to eat”. She also points out that, as part of this process, Sainsbury’s has been making good use of bulkier, watery foods, such as fruit and vegetables. “We know people have a perception of how much food they want to eat in terms of the volume and the portion size so (by using these foods) you help people to get that – that pleasure from bigger portions whilst controlling calories.”

The end of produce BOGOF offers?

In addition to reformulating their products, retailers can influence shoppers in many other ways, according to Woolven. Such tactics include:

  • being selective about the range of foods they stock.

  • the way in which they lay out their store.

  • the way in which their foods are displayed – such as positioning healthier foods at eye level.

  • pricing and promotions.

“Most supermarkets follow a fairly standard layout which includes putting fresh produce near the store entrance,” Woolven explains. “It makes for an attractive welcome to shoppers and it’s good for produce sales, even though some people do stride past because they want to buy their protein first.

“However, this standard layout was designed with a big weekly shop in mind and now the trend is for more frequent, top-up shopping trips. This is causing big stores to rethink. They need to make their stores more convenient for basket shoppers or they will keep losing them to smaller stores.

“One response has been a ‘grab and go’ section and this sometimes supplants fresh produce at the front of store,” Woolven continues. “It’s never been more important for produce suppliers to offer convenient, prepared packs. These can be part of the ‘grab and go’ section and some might also justify a place in the snack food aisle or even at the checkout.”

Woolven also points out that given fresh produce is on the list of the top ten wasted foods, the problematic issue of food waste is a concern for all fresh produce category managers. For this reason, explains Woolven, retailers have been reducing buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) offers in the fresh produce aisles and instead are moving towards everyday low prices in this area of the store.

Tim Mudge, commercial services manager for MIS, which provides the fresh produce industry with information on the retail environment, concurs that BOGOF has been recognised as encouraging food waste. He also agrees that many staple fresh produce items, such as bananas and carrots, now remain at low prices.

He says: “There’s a move towards that kind of pricing. Some prices are now pretty static across the year – they only tend to change during exceptional circumstances, such as when there is too much or too little of a particular crop.” He also suggests that many retailers have been influenced by Aldi’s ‘Super Six’ promotion, which sees a changing selection of six fruits and vegetables sold at discounted prices each week.

Mudge adds that other good point-of-sale initiatives currently being used by retailers include ‘three-for-the-price-of-two’ offers on a particular product range, such as stir fry vegetables. “These are encouraging people to purchase products for more than just the day they are buying for,” he says.

Global innovations

There are several other ways in which retailers could further encourage the sales of fruit and vegetables in the fresh produce aisles, according to Woolven. These tactics include the introduction of:

  • more attractive merchandising and lighting.

  • a broader range of ‘value line’ or Class 2 produce.

  • information on how customers can use less familiar products.

  • more recipes showcasing specific vegetables.

He says: “As retailers seek to build their healthy eating credentials, we could see more of all of these tactics in future.” Mudge agrees that providing information next to fresh produce products can encourage sales of fruit and vegetables. For instance, he tells Produce Business UK that one Morrisons store he visits has a blackboard display behind the apple shelf, which explains each variety, as well as its taste attributes.

“That does help,” he says, “but personally I think education needs to start further back down the line. I do not think its entirely retailers’ responsibility across the piece – you also have to educate people at home, at school or college, and at work as well.”

Woolven admits that IGD research has shown that nearly three quarters of consumers feel their own diet is primarily their own responsibility. Nevertheless, many supermarkets across the globe are developing their own ways of helping customers to choose healthier options.

He explains: “UK retailers are amongst the world leaders in promoting healthy eating. For instance, [they are] leading the way in transparent labelling and product reformulation.  However, good ideas to promote healthy eating are springing up in all parts of the world and not only in the familiar places.”

Canada’s main supermarket Loblaws, for example, now employs its own dieticians. “The dieticians accompany you on your shopping trip and give you advice on how to improve your diet,” Woolven notes, adding that Walmart is trialling a “healthy shopping cart” in Costa Rica that enables shoppers to grip the handle as they walk around the store.

“It will tell you how many calories you’ve burned on your shopping trip and also identifies when you are walking near to the most healthy products – and identifies particular promotions on those products.”

Meanwhile, Carrefour has teamed up with Nestlé to develop a “house of nutrition” in some of its stores in Brazil. “You can go inside and see people demonstrating healthy eating recipes,” says Woolven, who also reveals that Carrefour is using robots as nutrition guides or instead of people. “Personally I would not trust a mechanical robot to give me advice but in terms of grabbing young people’s attention, the novelty factor is definitely working.”

Whilst the introduction of robots into Britain’s supermarket aisles is arguably unlikely to happen in the near future, UK retailers nevertheless look set to continue to subtly nudge consumers into buying healthier foods – and the fresh produce category could have a key role to play in this process.

Annie Denny of Sainsbury’s and IGD’s Jon Woolven spoke at the 2015 edition of Food Matters Live in London on November 18.

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