How Supermarkets Could Fight Obesity



I have just returned from participating in a landmark event. Kudos to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Food Trust for convening a first-of-its-kind symposium at the University of Pennsylvania to explore ways that grocers can help stem America's obesity epidemic. Titled "Harnessing the Power of Supermarkets to Help Prevent Childhood Obesity," the gathering brought together experts approaching the issue from all sides, including food marketing and grocery executives, obesity researchers, policy analysts, and representatives from non-profit organizations.

The real question is: why hasn't anyone done this before?

My own store surveys have illustrated that over 60 percent of stand-alone displays carry items that nutritionists would decry as unhealthy.

The silence emanating from the grocery segment has been deafening. Yes, a handful of supermarkets have implemented nutritional labeling on packaged foods, such as the Guiding Stars program pioneered by Hannaford Brothers, but most of the attention has been focused on how to cajole food manufacturers into lowering the calories, fat, sugars, and sodium in their lineups. Despite being on the front lines with consumers, the grocery channel has been missing-in-action and overlooked as a potentially effective vehicle to fight obesity.

The fact is that most purchase decisions are made while in the act of shopping. A recent Booz & Company study [PDF] highlights that 59 percent of shoppers select the brands they buy when in the store. An overwhelming majority (77 percent) enter stores without detailed shopping lists. And when shoppers have lists, almost one third of them deviate significantly from them.

With so much indecision about what to buy, supermarkets are in a prime position to influence consumers to purchase healthier combinations of foods.

It's time for grocer's shelves and displays to trumpet brands that offer less calories and a better balance of nutrition. This does not mean that we shouldn't enjoy our favorite indulgences. It's just that we need to be reminded of healthier foodstuffs when we are in decision mode. As any Marketing 101 course teaches, it's all about awareness.

Marketers and merchandisers know that the more visible an item is, the more it will sell. Studies have confirmed that sales for items on display often increase by a factor of four-fold or more. And as noted in my chapter from Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat titled What Grocers Don't Want You to Know, "eye level means buy level."

While we know visibility is critical, too often stores do not display enough better-for-you foods. My own store surveys have illustrated that over 60 percent of stand-alone displays carry items that nutritionists would decry as unhealthy.

We find ourselves at that watershed moment when it is time to rethink the supermarket. How can we turn grocers' considerable merchandising skills to help slim us down? With supermarkets' arrays of sampling programs, displays, interactive shopping carts, and shelf signage, can we not more easily capture shoppers' attention to purchase healthier foods?

Ultimately, the real question to engage supermarkets is: can they make more money pushing better-for-you foods? Right now those answers are undetermined. It will take a few adventurous supermarket chains to serve as "pilots" to assess what can work. I will have more to say on this in a future article.

Please share your ideas on how you think supermarkets can help make a difference in the fight against obesity.