Study: Grocers Overly-Promoting Junk

Discussion
Dec 10, 2012

While healthy and fresh messages are appearing all over grocery floors these days, a study from the U.K. still finds supermarkets’ promotions biased in favor of foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt.

The three-year study from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School examined pricing techniques used by grocers to see if they led to excessive consumption of unhealthy foods. The mechanisms included multi-buy offers such as "buy one get one free" (BOGOF), "three for the price of two," and price discounts.

In all, prices and nutrition data across 6,000 food and drink items sold over a year by Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Ocado were analyzed.

The study found a bias towards sugary products for price promotions and that straight price discounts were on average more skewed towards unhealthy products. BOGOF offers and other more prominent deals tended to be distinctly skewed towards foods particularly high in fat, sugar and salt.

The one area found to be biased on average toward healthier foods were multi-buys.

Citing stats showing that almost a quarter of the U.K. population is now classified as obese, Professor Paul Dobson, head of Norwich Business School at UEA, urged grocers in a statement to "practice responsible marketing" while ensuring healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable for consumers.

"What is required is a comprehensive move away from price promoting unhealthy foods rather than token gestures for marketing spin," said Prof. Dobson. "It is simply irresponsible for supermarkets to overly promote foods with high sugar and fat content."

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium, said, "There’s no such thing as an unhealthy food, only an unhealthy diet. … Retailers have been encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables with innovative products, prominent promotions and competitive pricing for years."

Is there a natural predisposition by grocers to use “unhealthy” foods in promotions? Should grocers reassess promotional strategies in light of ongoing obesity concerns in society?

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18 Comments on "Study: Grocers Overly-Promoting Junk"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

There is higher margin in sugary, starchy, unhealthy foods. I’ve never seen a sale, discount or BOGO for organic carrots. It’s hard to “sale” people into something that needs to be sold.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Professor Dobson urged grocers in a statement to “practice responsible marketing”? I suspect Professor Dobson has never sat behind the marketer’s desk. Responsible marketing for the marketer is simple. Deliver revenues and profits to the company. Make the choices that generate a significant and constant bottom line. Taking care of a nation’s obesity problem is not the responsibility of the marketer. It is a responsibility of the people. It is a responsibility of the government (assuming the government is paying for the consequences of obesity).

Imagine the VP of Marketing at the quarterly staff meeting announcing “we are going to start promoting healthy products. Yes, we know it will create less revenue and profits. But, it is the right thing to do.”

The vendors with the most resources are not the ones that promote healthy foods. They will lavish money and tools on the retailers to assure that they get the promotions. That is where the problem is. It is not with the retailers.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

This is terribly misleading—if you go to the website and read the actual presentation they give a different answer (BOGOs skew toward unhealthy, but multi-item buys skew healthy and overall no difference in healthiness of promoted and nonpromoted items). You can find the pdf of the speech here.

Dan Raftery
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

This is an interesting perspective on the question of who is responsible for obesity. Grocers shouldn’t stand alone in the spotlight. Promotions are generally intended to add profitable lift to sales for both retailer and manufacturer. That usually involves products which have a potential for sales bumps. By their nature, better-for-you products are solidly in the baseline. And the less-good-for-you products are often responsive to impulsive. So, this is a triangle of responsibility involving the consumer too.

Joan Treistman
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Seriously? I always thought grocers were in it for the revenue. Sugar and salt and all those favorite things sell more than the sugar free and salt free.

The opportunity to buy healthy and live healthy is aspirational. The reality can’t be ignored, especially when you want to create profit. Consumers want choice. Retailers can provide the options with the advantage of knowing what shoppers want to buy…and influence the sale of those products in their stores.

I don’t believe grocers are responsible for choosing products for their consumers. Nor are they responsible for their eating behavior.

Giacinta Shidler
Guest
Giacinta Shidler
10 years 1 month ago

I’m not surprised by the results at all. As someone who tries to avoid too much processed food, I haven’t looked at a grocery circular in years because they’re all about processed foods. However, I’m not sure I would put the onus on the grocer. In the US, aren’t the promotions driven more by the manufacturers?

The state of agriculture in this country is such that I don’t expect to regularly see deep discounts on produce or meat anytime soon.

Frank Riso
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

I do not think the grocery segment of retail has an initiative to promote unhealthy foods. They do know how to promote foods that have a high margin, and food in the “category” of unhealthy are also very high-profit items.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
10 years 1 month ago

Sugary and salty foods are tasty. They may not be healthy for consumers, but they ring retail registers. Why should registers change that?

Tony Orlando
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Another bleeding heart story about healthy eating. I will sell any or all products that come my way at a great deal. It is not my responsibility to make sure my customers eat healthy, although I do engage them in many ways to help diabetic, and gluten free patients.

Why don’t we restrict the food stamp clients to eating only fresh meats and vegetables, rather than the frozen pizzas, and microwave meals they consume in large quantities?
I understand the premise, but please back off your soapbox, as consumers want DEALS!!!

Bob Phibbs is right, as we never get any good deals on organic produce, so we must look elsewhere, and 99% of the time, the deals are on processed high sugary foods.
Pop and chips are the two most heavily discounted items found in food stores, because consumers LOVE them, and until the demand for Tofu cookies increases dramatically, we will continue to promote what the customers want.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

It is not the job of a retailer to be “responsible” for the healthy eating of their customers. Their role is to compete in the marketplace and the way to do that is to give the consumers the products they want (and obviously this in many cases is the sugary and salty items) and promote the most profitable and traffic-building items and categories.

Manufacturers are pumping money into categories and products that are receiving some bad publicity because their job is to drive sales and profits for their shareholders. You can philosophize all day, but the reality is that the retailers and manufacturers are competing and the marketplace dictates the items promoted.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
10 years 1 month ago
I’m with Gene—so much of the promotion budget these days comes straight from the CPG brand, not the retailer. If you’re going to get free money to promote the “unhealthy” stuff, you’d be a fool not to use it. So it’s a little odd to take aim directly at the retailer and not at the companies manufacturing the stuff. It sounds to me, though, that the thought processes in the UK are swinging perilously close to the current perspective on advertising cigarettes and alcohol. If there is no perception of “balance” in promotions, then some regulator somewhere is going to feel the need to step in. While I agree that it is individuals who need to take responsibility for their health, and not retailers or even CPG brands to some extent, it’s obvious from the current results that tactics that rely exclusively on individual responsibility don’t work—as the developed world’s expanding waistlines prove. It might be smarter for retailers and brands to take a more active role in creating a sense of equity in promotions… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

As grocers, our job to to separate cash from people’s pockets, not manage the customer’s health. With most people hooked on sugar and salt, we simply cater to their desires. For the healthy wannabees, we come up with diet products and low salt versions and fool them into buying those products.

People truly serious about their health don’t shop at traditional supermarkets. We make a lot of money from the obesity crowd. Probably 85% of the food in a traditional grocery store is unhealthy. The pretty much leaves the fresh product department, oats, and beans.

Brian Numainville
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Grocers and manufacturers offer products that are desired by consumers. If the desired types of products change, the deals will follow. However, if consumers want the products being offered through promotions or sales, it isn’t up to the grocer to determine whether or not any particular product(s) are “good or bad”—this is up to the consumer.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
Mel Kleiman
10 years 1 month ago

No, there is a natural predisposition to promote things that the consumer will buy and things with a greater profit margin.

It is easier to sell things that people buy then it is to sell things that need to be sold.

James Tenser
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

It seems to me that supermarkets promote packaged goods heavily because they are heavily marketed by brand marketers. In other words, they take the easy cash.

It’s not exactly a coincidence that branded and prepared products tend to be higher in highly-refined ingredients, like sugars, fats, salt and starches.

Grocers always have the option to position their stores as purveyors of healthier eating. Promotions can be key carriers of that message. But promoting packaged goods at the same time is likely to dilute the message.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Over 30 years ago I published a book by then professor of nutrition at London University, Arnold Bender, called “Health or Hoax?” His opening line was, there’s no such thing as an unhealthy food only an unhealthy diet.

The varying ways in which retailers display—and promote—fresh vs processed food, just as an example, demonstrates many truths. Yes, the industry does try to promote fresh, healthy food. Yes, it does take fresh, healthy ingredients and process them so that their nutritional value is reduced to a sometimes absolute extent. Yes, people choose what to eat. Yes, the way in which all food is promoted and displayed influences purchasing and diet. Which is, of course, the object of the exercise. Or, as one of our BT members invariably says, the shortest route to removing the maximum amount from customers’ wallets.

So is there a natural predisposition by grocers to use “unhealthy” foods in promotions? Absolutely. You might even say it’s their responsibility.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

Another useless academic study based on lack of understanding. Supermarkets promote items from the list of items the manufacturer provides promotional money on. They pick items that bring customers into the store. It does a retailer no good to waste promotional dollars on items that don’t sell. Unless an item on promotion can provide the same gross margin dollars it is a loss for the retailer.

For some reason the organic/natural food manufacturers believe they don’t need to promote their products therefore they provide little if any promotional money. This is the reason retailers don’t feature these products.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
10 years 1 month ago

As much as we would like to think grocers are in business to keep people healthy, they are in the business to sell items and make a profit. Salty and sugary items have higher margins and attract more customers. That said, I am sure a smart grocer out there can find a way to use special healthy promotions to differentiate themselves from competitors.

I wonder if the government or private health insurance groups would offer promotional dollars to help drive the sale of healthier items. Imagine if the BOGOF was not fully funded by the manufacturer or retailer, but also included promotional dollars from a health insurance company. Healthier people cost less to service so the insurance group benefits as well. Plus, it would be a great place for an insurance company to advertise.

Full page add promoting 10 healthy items on deal and sponsored by MetLife.

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