As more consumers prioritize health and wellness, grocers step up their offerings

In their quest for optimal health and wellness, Canadians are turning, increasingly, to grocers
grocery basket

The uncertainty of the last few years has left most of us eager to regain control of our lives – and a key part of that is taking charge of our health. According to a recent survey of more than 11,000 consumers in 16 countries, including Canada, a majority of consumers consider health and fitness an “essential” part of their lives. Even though 66% of respondents to the survey – conducted by global professional services firm Accenture – said they feel financially squeezed, 80% intend to maintain or increase their spend on health and fitness in 2023, whether that be via vitamins, supplements or exercise classes. 

“For grocery, [health and wellness] used to be in that nice to have space and now it’s a need to have,” says Krystal Register, senior director, health and well-being at the Food Industry Association (FMI). That the average grocery store is already teeming with nutritious foods and beverages makes it an ideal destination for all these health and wellness-minded consumers, she says. With some grocers also having registered dietitians available to provide nutrition advice and guidance in-store and online, she says the grocery store is the “perfect place” to spotlight the role food can play in preventing disease and improving health. “I love a good end-cap with a new health product or a combination of things I may not have put together,” says Register. “These days it’s about how retailers can be a solution for health.”

Changing perspectives on health 

As a registered dietitian herself, Register says it’s “music to my ears” to discover that the latest trends show consumers taking a more relaxed and sustainable approach to healthy eating, which she believes is more beneficial to long-term health. Shoppers are still placing more importance on eating well, but the latest research from FMI’s 2022 report, The Power of Health and Well-Being in the Food Industry, shows they’re streamlining their approach with fewer fad diets and less focus on specific product health claims. “They’re still looking for low-sugar, low-sodium and those kinds of things, but it looks like they’re relying more on trusted brands and overall product narrative rather than strictly looking at nutrient or health claims,” she explains. “This more generalized approach opens up the whole grocery store to meal solutions that would appeal to a broader audience.”

As we continue to feel the crunch of rising inflation, Register says grocery shoppers will also be looking for affordable ways to eat more healthily at home. “That can add up to a reliance on private brands, which need to be providing meal prep options for home that translate into quality and savings,” she says.

Given rising food costs, Shelley Balanko, senior vice-president at The Hartman Group, expects consumers will stick to the tried and true. “If something is new, they will double down on research and look for guidance and assurance from their retailer or social network because they can’t afford to be disappointed,” she says. “So yes, they will be a little more cautious and conservative when it comes to health and wellness spending.”

Balanko says grocers can help provide that assurance by offering in-store product literature, vetted and curated products, and expert advice – be that from onsite dietitians, nutritionists or staff who are well-versed and able to make recommendations. She points to online retailer Thrive Market as doing an admirable job in curating a robust collection of health and wellness products, and making it easy for shoppers to make purchases based on attributes or food philosophies and diet.

“In store, it should be very clear to the consumer that a retailer has a strong stand on health and wellness that is reflected through their assortment of products … and in terms of how they train their staff or provide additional experts,” says Balanko. “Our feeling is that those retailers will fare better, especially at this time of economic uncertainty where consumers want to continue with their health and wellness objectives but are less willing to experiment.”

At Community Natural Foods (CNF), a subsidiary of Calgary Co-op, every team member takes part in a weekly training session to ensure they are up to speed on the latest products and supplements geared to health and wellness. “We have people who come in and say, ‘this is the health issue I’m having today’ so we have a full-service department in our wellness section with great staff who are full of knowledge and passion,” says Matt Penner, CNF’s category management lead. “Our customer patterns have shown us that the more customers could engage with [staff] the more they wanted to.”

The natural and organic foods grocer offers regular webinars and in-store programs on topics such as cardiovascular care, pain management and how to improve fertility through diet and natural supplements. “We had a successful CNF Sugar Detox program this January and a record-number of signups for that,” says Penner. In addition to five virtual education sessions hosted by a functional nutrition consultant, shoppers were given downloadable food lists, recipes, planning guides and exclusive product discounts/giveaways, as well as coaching support via email. Participants could also book free personal in-store shopping tours to learn about no and low sugar food options.

More information-savvy shoppers

As health and wellness becomes more mainstream, the average grocery shopper is proving to be more health savvy than ever before. “Now, customers understand what artificial flavours and colours are and what organic growing means,” says Penner. “A decade ago, this certainly wasn’t the case.”

Nicole Ensoll, registered holistic nutritionist at Nature’s Emporium – a chain of health food markets in the Greater Toronto Area – says she’s also seen a marked increase post-pandemic in the number of shoppers looking to take a more active, preventative approach to health and wellness. 

“They’re not just thinking about how to support their immune health with proper nutrition, they’re very cognizant of how gut health, for example, plays a role,” she says, pointing to products like bone broth and probiotics gaining favour, as well as licorice root to help repair intestinal lining. She says the same applies to customer interest in adaptogens – herbs and plants such as ashwagandha that can help rebalance the body after periods of stress. “I think people are also realizing their health is individual so they’re looking to find what makes them feel best.” Pets are no exception either, she says, noting an increasing number of pet owners who are purchasing natural supplements and healthy options for their animals.

While there are always experienced staff (including registered nurses) on hand to answer questions, Nature’s Emporium customers are encouraged to fill out an online form to book a free one-hour store tour for a more curated experience. “That way we can be fully prepared for what they’re looking for specifically and have the handouts and takeaways available for them,” says Ensoll.

A focus on mental wellness, too

In addressing customers’ health and wellness needs post-pandemic at the grocery store, analysts say mental wellness has to be a key consideration also. According to the 2021 NielsenIQ Global Health & Wellness report, one in three consumers surveyed across the globe reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health, so brands that were focused on improving mental health saw stronger growth than those that didn’t. “We anticipate a continued interest in aging gracefully versus anti-aging, as by 2060, 40% of the population will be age 50+,” says Sherry Frey, health & wellness industry leader at NielsenIQ. “As the boomers continue to age, they continue to redefine what wellness looks like, bringing to the conversation previously taboo topics like menopause and increasing an emphasis on mental wellness and brain acuity.”

Consumers’ interest in “brain health and staying sharp” is certainly growing, agrees Joel Gregoire, associate director of food and drink at Mintel in Canada. Based on the findings of Mintel’s 2023 Global Food and Drink Trends report, he says consumers will be looking for food and beverages that can influence cognitive capacity, manage stress and optimize brain function. That means we can expect to see brands promoting brain boosts from energizing ingredients such as caffeine, as well as from fruit, vegetables and legumes.

Gregoire also points to growing consumer interest in small moments of indulgence to offset stressful times. “We’ve all gone through a number of health trials over the last few years, so how can grocers find new ways to promote pleasurable moments at home through food and drink,” he explains. “Consumers are now saying it’s OK to indulge from time to time and they see that as a part of being healthy.”

This article was first featured in Canadian Grocer’s February 2023 issue.

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