Competing in the Information Age

From the retailer's perspective, today's price-sensitive shoppers want it all.

Specifically, consumers want healthy products competitively priced, convenient store locations, loyalty rewards and excellent service, including help deciphering confusing labels, according to a 2012 Nielsen report, "Factors impacting grocery shopping worldwide."

Aiming at several of those top factors at once, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer has created weekly television spots for the Toledo, Ohio, and Grand Rapids markets depicting a nutritious meal for four for $10 or less, presented by a dietitian. "Every quarter, my team of five does about 100 media spots and another 80 or so community events," says Shari Steinbach, healthy living manager at Meijer. "The TV stations are just looking for good content, and part of it is we bring those solutions to them."

While consumers have been clamoring for healthier options for decades, retailers are taking a more active role in educating shoppers about the importance of health and wellness in making purchase decisions. Meijer, which takes a media-centric approach to delivering consumer information, is one of a growing number of retailers that has added dietitians to its employment rosters to provide a new level of service.

"From a competitive standpoint, a shopper engagement standpoint, a shopper loyalty standpoint, I think [in-store dietitians are] a trend," says consultant Annette Maggi of St. Paul, Minn.-based Annette Maggi and Associates. Maggi previously served as a retail dietitian with Target Corp. and a senior director of nutrition for NuVal, which provides an on-shelf nutritional scorecard for products.

"Regardless of income, I find everybody wants to learn how to shop on a healthy budget."

–Julie Menounos,

Stop & Shop,

At Stop & Shop in Chelmsford, Mass., in-store nutritionist Julie Menounos consults with shoppers trying to lose weight or control a health condition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. "I see moms who are looking to become better role models for their families and learning how to prepare healthier meals and snacks. Regardless of income, I find everybody wants to learn how to shop on a healthy budget."

How much impact has each of the following "health & wellness" factors had on your choice of grocery purchases in the last 12 months?

Source: Nielsen Global Survey of Grocery Purchase Impact, Q1 2012

Implications for Marketers

Champion the healthy agenda and open channels of communication to engage consumers on their favorite topics.

Cater to special-needs diets with a wide variety of alternative food options.

Offer healthy lifestyle recipes and meal-planning guidance.

Providing Nutrition Information

Many retail dietitians also serve as marketers, encouraging consumers to purchase healthy products. "Consumers want information on how to put together meals that are easy and affordable and healthy as well. I like to say we're the sellers of solutions. We link in strategies," Steinbach says.

Retailers are employing in-store dietitians in part due to recognition that shoppers often have a hard time understanding nutritional labels. A new study from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicates consumers prefer nutrition facts labels that present information on the entire package of food in addition to per-serving data.

Shoppers' desire for more transparency about products has spurred retailers to add nutritional information on websites. New research by Packaged Facts indicates mothers in particular are using supermarket websites to gather product information and coupons. Safeway's Just for U digital loyalty program, rolled out in July 2012, has garnered 5.4 million members so far, contributing to a sales lift in the fourth quarter of 2012, the company says. The program offers personalized deals and digital coupons connected to consumers' loyalty cards.

While some consumers always have been price-conscious, many became more so in 2012 as food prices rose in many categories. The Nielsen research indicates 85 percent of those surveyed worldwide said higher food prices were impacting what they buy, and they identified escalating prices as the top factor among 16 drivers influencing consumers' grocery purchases. Aside from food costs, higher gas prices influenced how far consumers were willing to drive to buy groceries in 2012.

Building Loyalty

Retailer loyalty programs, the fifth most important factor among U.S. grocery shoppers in the Nielsen survey, are valued for the special prices most provide to members. For retailers, the programs keep shoppers returning to their store.

85% surveyed worldwide said higher food prices were impacting what they buy.
Source: Nielsen

But the availability of organic and "green" products also can sway consumers to shop at one store instead of another. The Nielsen survey indicates one-fourth of global respondents said they were buying more "green" products than a year ago.

Health factors had a major impact on purchases for 38 percent of global survey respondents, Nielsen reports. Food labeling information was cited as a major impact among 31 percent of respondents and a minor impact among 42 percent. Food allergy factors, products with enhanced nutritional benefits and organic products also were major influences for one in four shoppers, the report says.

In addition to television spots on healthy eating, Meijer provides kitchen demonstrations at health and wellness expos. "We have to focus our efforts on reaching the large groups if you will," Steinbach says, "although we consult and help put together some educational programs within our stores."

Howard Wolinsky is a Chicago-based business/technology writer and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University.