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So gluten good

Demand for gluten-free products is growing.

When Judy Myers goes grocery shopping, she stops at the health-food store first to buy her gluten-free baking mixes, soups and other products before heading to the supermarket to shop for the rest of her family. Myers, who lives in a small town in Nova Scotia, would prefer to do all her shopping in one place. But she says her supermarket doesn’t stock a wide enough selection of gluten-free items.

Myers suffers from celiac disease, an inherited digestive disorder triggered by an allergic reaction to the protein gluten found in oats, wheat, barley and rye. The disease disrupts nutrients from being absorbed by the small intestine. There’s only one treatment: a lifelong gluten-free diet. So Myers looks for products that contain grains and seeds such as quinoa, rice, corn, amaranth, buckwheat, flaxseed and millet.

Celiac disease is now recognized as one of the most common chronic diseases in the world. It affects as many as one in every 200 Canadians. Still, many don’t even know they suffer from it. “We estimate that only about 5% to 10% of people with celiac disease are actually diagnosed,”  says Shelley Case, a registered dietitian in Regina and author of Gluten Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. “Can you imagine the demand for gluten-free products once those people get diagnosed?” she asks.

A growing category

The demand for gluten-free food is certainly increasing. And it’s not just celiac-disease sufferers driving sales. Gluten-free products are prized by people with wheat allergies, autism and other non-celiac-related sensitivities. While no figures are available in Canada, at U.S. supermarkets, sales of gluten-free products grew 12.2%, to US$3.63 billion during the 52 weeks ending March 20, 2010, according to Nielsen. Units sold reached 1.39 billion at supermarkets, up 12.5% versus a year ago.

At Nature’s Path Organic Foods in Richmond, B.C., the company’s line of 28 gluten-free products already represents 17% of its total sales, and is increasing at a rate of about 23%, says Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing and communications. “Every single one of our gluten-free products is growing.”

Conventional grocers, however, “are not jumping on the bandwagon,” she says. “Conventional grocery stores are missing out on a great opportunity that the natural food stores are capitalizing on.” A 2008 survey called “Understanding the Gluten-free Shopper” found that 55% of gluten-free shoppers spent 30% or more of their grocery budget on gluten-free food, and 68% shopped at three or more stores per month to find these products. However, when asked where they would most prefer to shop for them, 71% said “the grocery store while I buy the rest of my family’s groceries.”

But attracting celiac sufferers isn’t as easy as scattering a few gluten-free items around the store. These are well-educated customers who know their glutens from their non-glutens. To get into this category in a big way, stock a wide range of products and talk to potential purchasers. Hosting, attending or speaking at a celiac support meeting can help. Consider also donating samples or ask celiac patients which brands they prefer.

Employee education is also critical. “Get your employees gluten-free trained,” advises Emmer-Aanes. “If you’re getting into this category, you have to be really educated or provide people with the tools and education materials.” Invite dietitians to educate staff and conduct gluten-free store tours. While sampling gluten-free products won’t appeal to the masses, Case suggests holding a special day, ideally during National Celiac Awareness Month (in May), with a dietitian to answer questions; and offer coupons for gluten-free products.

A dedicated section?

For grocers, an obvious merchandising dilemma needs to be solved before expanding the gluten-free selection. Gluten-free products span a wide array of categories across the aisles. There are gluten-free cakes, pastas and soups, for instance. These items don’t logically fit together on shelves. Do you split them up—gluten-free pasta with the regular pasta—or create a special section?

Michael Smulders, founder of Bakery on Main in Glastonbury, Conn., a producer of gluten-free granola cereals and snacks, recommends merchandising all the gluten-free items together. “It’s very frustrating for the celiac person to shop in a store where the gluten-free products are mixed in with all the other products. They can literally spend hours reading labels to try to find products.” In a survey of the company’s online club members, more than 90% of respondents said they preferred to shop in a dedicated section.

Smulders suggests delineating a section in the store–perhaps eight, 12, or 16 feet–and including as many gluten-free products as possible. With frozen foods, stock a few shelves or one door of the freezer with them. If a segmented approach isn’t feasible, he suggests creating sub-sections, such as two shelves of gluten-free cereals within the regular cereal section.

This strategy can create its own problems, though. With baking products, for example, be mindful of avoiding cross-contamination on the shelves if, say, a bag of wheat flour breaks and contaminates the gluten-free flour. (It only takes 10 mg of gluten to trigger a reaction in someone with celiac, warns Case.) With prepared foods, says Smulders, be careful to thoroughly vet your products and control cross-contamination before claiming they are gluten-free.

Whichever merchandising strategy grocers choose to use, those who make a commitment to this category will gain a loyal following of customers who will buy not only their gluten-free products in the store, but all their other groceries as well.

3 Merchandising Tips

1. Gluten-free needn’t be a boring category. Create an eye-catching “non-allergy” display, piled high with colourful fruit and vegetables, along with gluten-free rice, millet and buckwheat, dairy-free chocolate and “all sorts of yummy things low on the allergy scale,” says Vesanto Melina, author of the Food Allergy Survival Guide and a registered dietitian in Langley, B.C.

2. Put together a brochure of the gluten-free products you stock and where to find them. Customers should be able to pick it up at your service desk. And clearly identify the gluten-free items on store shelves.

3. Broaden the appeal of gluten-free items to consumers by promoting the healthy benefits of ingredients such as ancient grains. Even shoppers who don’t have celiac disease will enjoy the taste of gluten-free products, points out Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing at Nature’s Path Organic Foods.

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