Wellness Forum: Healthy returns

Understanding shoppers’ top tactics for eating healthier can help grocers build sales.

By Cary Silvers

Losing weight is one of America’s top reasons for eating healthier. According to Shopping for Health 2010 the 18th annual study conducted by Prevention Magazine and the Food Marketing Institute, 69% of shoppers report that they are overweight by a few pounds, which is five points higher than last year. When asked, 31% say they started a diet in 2009 and 60% of them were still on their diet at the end of the year.

The most telling sign about our lack success in losing weight is our method. The No. 1 way most people diet is to “wing it”—60% just watch their calories.

Everything we have learned has shown dieting and healthy eating is not an all-or-nothing proposition; rather it is a matrix of specific choices on a product-by-product basis. So how do people “wing it”? Let’s look at some possible choices using the example of Hostess chocolate cupcakes. The scenario is you want to eat healthier and watch your calories. Among the following, which would you choose?

  • The swap—you opt for the 100-calorie pack of cupcakes.
  • The switch—you ditch the cupcakes and snack on Jell-O sugar-free chocolate pudding to satisfy your desire for chocolate.
  • The stop—you manage to associate the cupcakes with rising digits on your scale so you just stop buying them.
  • The cut—you have adopted a smaller portion size approach and have the willpower to only eat one cupcake at a time, although are packaged with 2 cupcakes.
  • The add—there is no way you are giving these up, however, you start buying some healthy baby carrots.

Granted there may be some other options, but this is the process many shoppers go through. In the SFH survey, we identified the main tactics shoppers utilize. The good news is that the top two techniques s shoppers choose is to replace products rather than stop buying.

When trying to eat healthier, shoppers take the following tactics about half—or more—of the time.

  • 58%: swapping—opting for the healthier version of a product (could be lower calorie, reduced sodium, added vitamins, etc.)
  • 52%: switching—replacing a product for a healthier alternative (switching from soda to water, cookies to crackers, etc.)
  • 47%: stopping—not buying less-healthy products
  • 47%: cutting—continuing to buy less healthy products but eating fewer or smaller portions
  • 46%: adding—buying healthy products like baby carrots that they had not purchased before.

Most retailers have the first element “swapping” covered. When any shopper walks down an aisle they can see many versions of a product and can choose accordingly; low/zero calorie, low sodium, no cholesterol, no transfats etc. How powerful is this: Nielsen recently reported wheat bread is now outselling white.

“Stopping” is the no-sale tactic, which can center on indulgence items like snacks and sweets. For some consumers this can turn into a bigger stop right in the store—aisle avoidance, which does not bode well for sales of cookies or anything else in that aisle. As shoppers stop buying some products where does your store stand on “adding” healthy products? Do you lose more than gain in this all or nothing tactic?

Finally, “switching”—where shoppers replace one product for another—is a big tactic to make the most of. Retailers need to ask themselves, if you knew a significant portion of your customers were switching from soda to water, what would you do differently? The most obvious answer is to carry and display more water and less soda. What if you knew the top 10 or 20 products your customers were most likely to switch to or consider as healthier alternatives? Retailers have an opportunity beyond inventory control to connect with shoppers as they experiment.

Think of offering more product samples (healthy ones) and taste tests. Combine this with a running count of how many shoppers liked it vs. not (even when you run out of samples people can see the count). If we have learned anything from online reviews in iTunes (ratings of apps) or Trip Advisor (ratings of hotels), it’s that people want to know what other people like them are saying about a product.

Understanding these shopper tactics can help you maximize sales as shoppers turn to healthier products. While adding healthy products offsets cutting out some unhealthy ones—make sure your store offers enough healthy alternatives to keep you on the positive side of this ledger. The key for every retailer is to capitalize on the “swapping,” “switching” and “adding” tactics.

Cary Silvers is director of consumer insights for Rodale. He can be reached at cary.silvers@rodale.com.

This entry was posted in 2011 01 Article Archives, Columns. Bookmark the permalink.