What’s driving consumers to shift toward healthier eating habits and what retailers can do to meet their needs?

It’s commonly discussed and published that consumers are becoming more health-conscious. But the word “more” is a vague term, and doesn’t help retailers understand what is driving the shift or help them know where to begin making shifts in their own merchandising and marketing to stay relevant.

Let’s begin with some of the factors driving the shift:

Lifestyle Changes: Consumers have begun to learn that constant dieting (yo-yo dieting, jumping from diet to diet) is part of the cause of obesity and not part of the cure. Instead, people are opting for more reasonable lifestyle shifts which include healthy carbohydrates and fats, along with physical activity.

Sugar taxes: states have put taxes in place on unhealthy beverages making them cost prohibitive (or unattractive) for many consumers. Consumers have opted to choose other beverages instead.

Type 2 Diabetes: our population’s diagnoses are rising strikingly fast. According to the Center for Disease Control’s reports released in 2015, 50% of our children of color were trending for diabetes at that time, and 40% of the American population would be diagnosed in their lifetime. Those numbers are enormous and will cause a family to shift how it consumes food, plans for, and shops for groceries.

Diet Successes: while people are making healthy lifestyle changes, we’re not moving away from being Diet Nation anytime soon. One of the common denominators in the successful diets (Paleo, Keto, DASH, among others) is the avoidance of non-nutritious, highly refined carbohydrates: sugar and flour.

Television: though controversial, it wouldn’t be fair to go forward without acknowledging the influence of Doctor Mehmet Oz, who brought conversations about health into living rooms across the U.S. every weekday. True: he’s been criticized for commercializing some things that weren’t proven, yet his impact on Americans’ awareness is real. His popularity led to the creation of other daytime health-based television, such as The Doctors. Part of the popularity of the television shows is that viewers can connect to the idea of health daily, but not necessarily implement what they learn. Or they can absorb the information and choose to implement the easiest steps.

Second, let’s look at areas retailers can make a difference: “Healthier consumers” does not mean they are suddenly healthy. Americans didn’t change that quickly. Here are a few areas of immediate focus for retailers that can make a difference in their sales, margins, and the perceptions of their customers:

Convenience foods: extremely important, but look to upgrade the quality with cleaner and fresher ingredients. 

In-store service deli departments have the most opportunity for gain: supermarkets should absolutely own the lunch and dinner business with their customers. Don’t give up this business to startup delivery operations. Don’t give it up to Quick Serve Restaurants. Get interesting, and do it right now.

  • This is an area where a vegetarian salad or charcuterie tray can naturally be gluten-free with very little effort.
  • Preparation and presentation are extremely important to capture quality and freshness both in reality and perception.
  • Just as a restaurant will have daily specials, a store’s deli will need to rotate selections daily and monthly to prevent shopper burnout. Instead, create a new level of demand so that you customers want to see what’s new.

Snacks: snacking is an unbelievably strong trend that won’t slow down in our lifetimes.

Americans are now satisfying 50% of their eating opportunities daily with snacks and this is fairly equal across all demographics (according to The Hartman Group out of Bellevue, Washington). To make the most of this:

  • Don’t just expand the snack section, but expand the variety and types of snacks in the snack section. Get involved on your own – don’t leave this to your DSD distributors: products already must be pretty big before they buy the brand. Get innovative, local items. Take risks. Change often.
  •  Look at all consumable food sections and ask yourself: how does snacking fit or tie in here? Can you create side stacks, shelf extensions, merchandising baskets? This includes perimeter departments and check out queuing space. Get creative.
data provided by The Hartman Group

Beverages: Don’t let the sugar taxes or a healthier consumer diminish beverage sales. DSD beverage companies will aggressively pursue any sales losses with their own brands, but that isn’t the only opportunity. Beverages are highly consumable and often with strong margins. They provide consumers with a large point of interest: there’s always a new one to adopt as a favorite.

  • Kombucha, tonic, drinking vinegar, tea, sparkling water, functional beverages, electrolyte enhanced water, high-pH water, shakes, iced and cold-brew coffee, this list can go on forever. 
  • Look to add some local options to your selection and show your consumers that you support your community.
  • Within the selection – make sure that you have a range of sugar levels, from natural sugar sweetened to diet/artificially sweetened with zero calories.

Those are some immediate steps retailers can take to address a growing trend in our customer base. I’ll provide more in other areas in articles to follow.

Side note: One of my favorite activities is to give out this homework assignments to readers, but especially store owners:

I challenge you all to eat in your own deli department two meals each day, every day, for five days straight. Then get back to me and tell me what you learned (ssteiner@marketcentre.com). I’ll post some of them here (anonymously of course) so that you can all learn from each other. I have a few now that are nearly identical, and I don’t want to give away the lesson by posting them yet. Happy learning! 

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