Too much information?

As the FSA cracks down on displays of unhealthy foods, supermarkets are being encouraged to provide nutritional information on food packaging, but is this what consumers actually want? By Paul Gander

Hidden away in the Food Standard Agency’s Action Plan on Food Promotions and Children’s Diets is a clause recommending that unhealthy snacks and drinks should be removed from supermarket checkouts.

Of course, the FSA has no authority to force retailers to do this: the word “encourage” crops up a great deal in the guidelines, which were published in July. Many in retail and food manufacturing have been taken aback to see the FSA move outside its more familiar territory of food safety and hygiene. There are even some mutterings about it acting beyond its remit.

The FSA begs to differ. By staking out a position in the food promotions arena, the agency is simply following the lead of consumer groups, medical opinion and government departments. Preventing the negative effects of foods with high fat, high sugar and high salt content has become an issue of public health.

The pressure on retailers to rethink their impulse purchase displays at the checkout is only one small item in a long catalogue of “encouragement” being levelled at brands and retailers. Harder-fought battles will no doubt centre on advertising to children, recipes and the way in which targeted ingredients and additives are flagged up on food packaging.

Sugar-free shopping

In fact, as British Retail Consortium (BRC) director of communications David Southwell points out, some retail chains pre-empted the FSA’s guidance on the checkout issue. He claims that in one form or another, sweet-free checkouts are offered by the majority of retailers.

This shift can be explained in a number of ways. It could be put down to the effectiveness of campaigns by pressure groups such as the Food Commission. It could also be attributed to retailers’ eagerness to head off the threat of legislation by being seen to do the right thing, even with only a voluntary code hanging over their heads.

But another reason behind the retailers’ action could be, quite simply, that it makes them look good. Today, the word “responsibility” is wielded in all sorts of business contexts, from the environment to workforce relations; now it is the consumer’s turn. Point of purchase (PoP) is also the point at which brands are most visible. Rather than see growing awareness of diet and nutrition as a threat, these supply chain partners are testing ways of transforming it into an opportunity, with PoP as the focus.

Quite what shape this opportunity will take at PoP, and what the different roles of the brand and the retailer will be, remains unclear. As a field marketing agency, Blue Water is directly affected by any changes to the retail environment. Sales director Richard Finch explains that in-store merchandising fashions seem to be cyclical. Currently, it is true that a brand can opt to use shelf-edge labelling, clip-strips or “wobblers”.

But he adds: “Slowly but surely, the supermarkets have tried to clear the aisles. Manufacturers are having to explore other ways of gaining the competitive edge. It’s far less common today to see a freestanding unit – and then what the brand has to pay to site this material is incredible.”

A waste of space?

It is not only retailer resistance that might limit the promotional use of healthy eating issues by brands at PoP. “It’s difficult enough as it is to produce an impactful piece of PoP material,” Finch argues. As he points out, brands are not likely to squander this precious resource on nutritional background that may not interest the consumer in the least.

As the checkout issue demonstrates, the initiative might lie with the retailer rather than the brands. The Food Commission notes that the chains such as Sainsbury’s have established areas of the store for allergy and intolerance sufferers, and sees no reason why similar areas could not be allocated for “healthy eating”.

Dieting in the aisles

Finch agrees: “If the healthy diet issue gathers momentum, there is potential for retailers to look at store layout and create a healthy eating aisle, with products selected for their salt or fat content, for instance.” But he adds: “I don’t know whether the supermarkets would go to that extreme.”

The problem for the BRC is that this could lead to all sorts of problematic distinctions between “good” and “bad” foods, just when the industry is trying to place the emphasis on the merits of particular diets rather than individual foods. The BRC’s Southwell says: “Retailers don’t want to see the demonisation of certain types of food, or the creation of ‘top-shelf’ foods.” The argument here is a familiar one: placing any type of product in the “forbidden” category simply makes it more attractive to certain consumers – especially the young.

The initial pressure for some sort of “traffic-light” system to identify foods with high levels of fat, sugar and salt came from consumer groups. Now that Tesco has announced trials of its own system, the BRC is managing to lean both ways in its assessment of the idea.

“Problems arise when the system is simplistic,” says Southwell. “In this case, it could have potentially massive implications for sales of products which might in fact be essential to a balanced diet.” He cites the examples of cheese, eggs and full-fat milk. “But the Tesco system is not a simplistic one,” he hastens to add.

While brands and retailers have so far looked at on-pack information and store layout, future initiatives may focus on shelf-edge systems. Southwell predictsthat in years to come consumers will be equipped with some form of scanner as they go around the store, and will be able to access as much nutritional and other background information as they want about particular products.

That day may be closer than the BRC thinks. Retail technology company Retec has developed a point-of-sale system called Health Matters, which combines a small shelf-edge screen and integral bar-code scanner. This allows the consumer to access key nutritional information as desired. Creative director Andrea Williams says the company is in talks with two major retailers about in-store trials.

Feeding the mind

Williams adds: “There is no touch-screen or menu – it’s an immediate gateway to the information.” To begin with, she explains, the information will not be anything that the consumer cannot access elsewhere. “But,” she says, “with allergy advice, for example, the tend to be generally well-hidden on the pack. We will also bring nutritional information to the fore, couching it in terms of the male/ female daily allowance. Consumers can immediately see the impact of a certain product on their diet.”

All of this suggests a technology that would require more of a retailer-led initiative than a brand-led one. Williams agrees: “In an ideal world, we’d see retailers supporting this, and they in turn would persuade brands to support or sponsor it.” But she can see the potential benefit of such a system to larger brands. “It would be a good way for them to signal that they’re behind the health and nutrition issue,” she says.

Similarly, there is no reason why the rule about simple, immediately accessed information should be adhered to, admits Williams. “The beauty of digital communications is that we can take interested consumers to other levels,” she says. These might include recipes or more background information about the food. But she warns: “It has to be presented in such a way that the consumer isn’t left wading through swathes of data.”

Clearly, a lot more research needs to be done about the amount and type of information that shoppers want at PoP. The BRC’s Southwell says: “What do consumers want at the point of purchase? The experience of retailers has been that additional information about products does not need to be delivered at PoP.” If there had been more consumer interest in this, he reasons, retailers would have responded by now.

So a substantial part of the retail argument about nutritional guidance at point of purchase hinges on the question of what the consumer wants. But clearly the question of effectiveness is just as important. As Southwell puts it: “For manufacturers and retailers alike, there are limits to what you can do at PoP to help change people’s diets and lifestyles. There’s no magic bullet or panacea that’s based around PoP information.”

The BRC quotes the example of the “five-a-day” campaign, which highlights the benefits to consumers of eating five separate portions of fruit or vegetables each day. This has been used by individual brands, mostly on packaging. But Southwell asks the question: “What information could you put at PoP to encourage that?”

Educating the masses

He does provide one positive example of consumer education. The majority of British consumers used to know nothing about wine, he points out. But thanks in part to better shelf-edge information, knowledge about dryness, flavour and different regions and grapes has grown slowly but steadily. There is, the BRC maintains, no reason why a similar adjustment should not take place with general nutritional awareness over time.

In the meantime, brands and retailers will have to investigate how nutrition and health information, whether on packs or shelf-edge, can be kept accessible and meaningful. They will have to assess just how much nutritional information the consumer wants, and how much of that should be available at PoP.

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