Skip to main content

Better health through merchandising

To get consumers to buy healthier food, grocery stores need to be totally remerchandised, some experts say.

In Desiree Nielsen’s fantasy grocery store, a lush, colourful produce section makes up the shop’s central core. Surrounding it are even more fresh departments: meat, dairy and the bakery.

“A shopper could easily spend their whole trip here,” says the Vancouver-based dietitian and former nutrition operations manager at Choices Markets, a B.C. grocer. Customers looking for salty chips or sugary soda would have to travel to the farthest reaches of the store, passing tall end caps brimming with healthy fare along the way.

Nielsen’s store is based on a concept that’s gaining attention in academic circles: By displaying unhealthy foods in impulse-driven areas like end caps and checkout lanes, retailers affect consumers’ food choices. This, in turn, affects their health.

With researchers drawing connections between product placement and obesity, there’s a growing chorus calling for changes to the way grocery stores are laid out. But is it really a supermarket’s responsibility to push people to make healthier food choices? And how can retailers help consumers reduce their waist sizes without also reducing their profits?

READ: 10 ways to make your store a health and wellness destination

Earlier this year, a University of British Columbia study confirmed what many of us already suspected: obesity rates in this country have reached historic highs. Researchers found that 25 per cent of Canadian adults were obese in 2009, a worrisome three-percentage-point increase over 2003.

But according to Dr. Deborah Cohen and Dr. Susan Babey, an American medical doctor and a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, respectively, our response to this epidemic has been “stymied” by a stubborn belief. Namely, that food purchases are deliberately thought out. In fact, they say, food decisions are often made on impulse, and are influenced to a great extent by merchandising.

In a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, Babey and Cohen argue that the prominent placement of unhealthy foods in supermarkets should be treated as a risk factor for obesity and chronic disease.

“Many people will go to a grocery store with a list of food that they plan to buy,” explains Babey. “However, what often happens is in addition to those things on your list, you walk out of the store with things not on your list that you didn’t plan to buy until you saw them.” That likely includes unhealthy snacks and sugary beverages spotted on end-of-aisle displays.

So Babey and Cohen recommend changes: Grocers should replace the junk food they usually stock on end caps and in checkout lanes with healthy fare. Chips, pop and candy, meanwhile, should be relegated to an area of the store that requires a “deliberate search to find.” For example, the bottom shelf of the least-frequented aisle.

Not surprisingly, Babey and Cohen’s ideas have been greeted with cheers from some, and eye rolls from others, including Dr. Hugh Phillips, a Montreal-based expert in the psychology of shopping.

“This is a load of rubbish,” he says, noting the authors’ arguments are based on the debunked theory that “wicked retailers have techniques that they can apply to , called stimulus, and we respond by dutifully going out and buying the products.” It’s insulting to consumers, he notes. And besides, Canadian grocery retailers are listing and promoting healthy foods like never before.

Phillips, as well as many people who work in the food retail industry, argues that the grocer’s job is to provide consumers with choice. That means offering a bounty of fresh, healthy fare, as well as a selection of “vice” foods. Isn’t that enough?

READ: Getting closer to their hearts

Dr. Brian Wansink is all about win-win. The behavioural economist and food psychologist understands that “you have to be realistic,” when it comes to making supermarkets healthier. “ doesn’t recommend anything that we don’t think will be a win for the consumer, and that grocers won’t do because they won’t make more money.”

While researching for his latest book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, the Cornell University professor says he encountered some initial pushback from grocers. They were concerned the changes he proposed for their stores would result in lost sales.

Not so. In his book, due to hit shelves in December, Wansink argues it’s possible to “shift people to buy a healthy mix of groceries, while still keeping that dollar volume really high.” How? It all begins with understanding how consumers behave in grocery stores.

For example, one of Wansink’s suggestions is based on the observation that people tend to toss more products into their carts at the start of their shopping trip than at the end. “People look at an empty basket and feel pressure to fill it as soon as they step inside the store,” he explains.

So Wansink recommends grocers replace any junk food stocked in the first two aisles of the centre store with “really healthy, high-margin stuff,” such as whole wheat bread and low-sugar energy bars. The chips and candy, meanwhile, should be put in the back of the store. By the time customers reach those far-off aisles, their carts will be full, and “people naturally start slowing down.”

Now, rewind to the start of a grocery shopper’s trip. Most retailers smartly position their produce sections at the front of their stores, where consumers typically begin their shop. But there’s one major problem: produce sections often offer consumers a “clear, easy blast-through path.” This poor design means shoppers can easily bypass the produce department, or take the first exit to unhealthy food.

Wansink suggests making design changes, which he tested in grocery stores and illustrated with floor plans in his book. Throughout the produce department, Wansink used fruit bins like roadblocks, diverting shoppers away from the centre store and steering them deeper into the fresh aisles. He found that by ridding the produce section of expressways, and forcing customers to walk in a zigzag pattern, grocers can increase the amount of time people spend in the department by one minute and 16 seconds on average. Better still, the average shopper buys an extra $2.41 worth of fruit and veggies.

It’s not just academics working on making stores healthier, of course. Grocers are testing out ideas, too. Take a trio of Walmart stores in West Virginia, for example. Recently, the managers of the three stores decided to conduct an experiment at their checkout counters. At one checkout per location, they replaced the regular junk food on display with pears, bananas, grapes, nuts and jump ropes. To their surprise, sales tripled on some items, and customer feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

“One of the first things I got was a phone call from a customer,” says store manager, Kevin Ohse. “She said, ‘Normally I have the kids tugging on me at the checkout lane for a candy bar. Today on their way home they ate a banana.’ ”

For Nielsen, the dietitian, end caps are another great opportunity to “gently push” people to make better food choices. She recommends grocers choose a health awareness campaign, such as Celiac Awareness Month, in May, or World Diabetes Day, on Nov. 14, and fill their end caps with products that are healthy for that specific condition. “So for diabetes, it might be whole grain foods, such as quinoa or All Bran, or other options that are lower in sugar, lower in fat.”

Nielsen also suggests grocers use end caps to showcase convenient, healthy meals for time-starved shoppers. At Choices Markets, for example, she set up tall displays with organic, low-sugar tomato sauces and whole grain pasta, along with signs that read: “Dietitian’s choice for quick and healthy meal ideas.” It was a resounding success, Nielsen says. “People were interested and it created a new feature within the store because it’s a bit of education as well.”

A 2010 Heart and Stroke Foundation survey found almost two thirds of Canadians have tried to lose weight in the past five years. Sadly, most failed to keep the weight off. The primary reason cited was a lack of support – 90 per cent of people polled said there was “no person or resource” to help them maintain their new, healthier weight.

Consumers are scrambling for solutions to their health woes, and grocers are well positioned to help them. “There are tons of things that can be done that can lead consumers to eat healthy, and be profitable for grocery stores,” says Wansink.

In other words, we don’t need to reinvent the grocery store. But with a little trial and error, we may find two things happen: shoppers purchase and eat healthier food, and profits go up. As Wansink likes to say: win-win.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds