It's taken several years of experimentation, but there is a consensus emerging: The most effective integration strategy placing better-for-you foods in Center Store sections does not disrupt the clean aisle lines or layout, though it does highlight the special foods with unique labeling or signs.
Marsh Supermarkets, Target, Wegmans Food Markets and Clemens Family Markets are among the mainstream retailers recognized by industry observers as doing the best job of distinguishing products that feature certain health distinctions, such as low sugar, low fat, low carb and organic. Part of their success lies in the ability of these operators to assimilate those products into the main sets, and into the overall decor of the store.
These chains are less focused on the traditional slotting fee model, and more on offering products that consumers are demanding, noted Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, Brattleboro, Vt. "The Marshes, Blooms [a Kash n' Karry format] and Targets of the world are focused on the consumer now," he said.
Those retailers are "embracing" healthy foods, demonstrated by their focused, integrated display of the products. Marsh, Target and Wegmans use shelving and signs that don't alienate shoppers, Jacobowitz said. For example, signs distinguishing natural foods and other specialty items at Target's supercenter format match the design of all other signs in the store, so "you can go from one aisle to the next and it doesn't look like a different piece."
Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, is integrating natural, organic and low-carb items into regular sets as it remodels stores and opens new ones.
"As we build new stores, we're trying to increase space in the center of the store to let us incorporate the items," Lori Willis, corporate spokeswoman for the retailer. Schnucks calls out the low-carb products with "The Low Carb Choice" signs in Center Store aisles.
At Elizabeth, N.J.-based ShopRite, the Live Right program launched this year calls out healthier foods throughout the dry grocery aisles with color-coded signs distinguishing Organic, Natural, Sugar Free, Fat Free, Low Carb, Low Fat, Low Sodium, and Wheat/Gluten Free.
"One of the most enjoyable things in life is eating great food, but sometimes finding what you need for your lifestyle is not so simple," stated literature distributed during the rollout of the program. "Use the convenient, brightly colored shelf signs throughout the store to quickly find foods to suit your needs."
Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets also began integrating natural and organics into Center Store and other sections last year. While the chain has long featured separate "GreenWise Market" organic and natural sections in its stores -- and still does -- it has also set up secondary in-aisle displays. Here, they are treated as segregated sets within aisles, delineated with rail strips and shelf dividers embossed with the GreenWise name.
The integration can be seen primarily in Center Store categories, such as cereals, where Publix displays 8 linear feet of GreenWise organic and natural cereals in some stores; and shelf-stable beverages, where the chain devotes 8 linear feet to soy and rice beverages, and features 8 feet of natural and organic juices.
"They have done a nice job color blocking with the GreenWise logo to designate those sections, and the panels stick out a bit. You can find them pretty easily as you go down the aisle," said Neil Stern, partner at retail consulting firm McMillan/ Doolittle in Chicago.
The integration issue has been around since the low-fat days of the mid-'80s, but it hasn't taken on critical importance until fairly recently. Indeed, many point to the resurgence of low-carb diets two years ago as the point at which retailers felt compelled to review merchandising options. The pressure for change mounted quickly, from impatient consumers looking for immediate product availability, as well as from manufacturers clamoring for better in-store real estate where volume promised to be higher.
Until this point, products like low carb were considered specialty items and likely were first merchandised in separate "store-within-a-store" sections, along with all-natural and organic alternatives. While sales might have been adequate, nothing prepared the industry for low carb, when demand for products came louder and quicker than anything to that point. Retailers and even manufacturers began comparing sales of integrated low-carb items with those found in the health and wellness sections. The sales figures said it all, and moved the topic of integration to the top of the "to do" list.
The future of separate sections that survive today will depend largely on the pace and scope of the current integration activities among leading retailers.
For retailers and consumers alike, it is a time of transition. Segregation and integration hold a certain amount of influence over how customers shop stores, and how retailers stock them.
"When you call [special products] out in an exclusive section, sometimes the mainstream consumer doesn't bother to go down that aisle, so it's detrimental," said an executive with a Midwestern chain, who did not want to be named. At the same time, retailers run the risk of products getting lost in the flood of conventional items in the main aisles, he added.
"It's only one of 40,000 [stockkeeping units] over there. While the aisle gets more traffic, it doesn't make as strong a presentation in its shelf space, as when it was with the rest of all the healthy alternatives," he said.
To overcome this Catch 22, most retailers are opting for some variation of a combined, segregated/integrated approach -- placing certain specialty or better-for-you items within the conventional sets, but consolidating them within a single display. Other retailers also continue to offer the products in the separate health and wellness sections.
Integrating these products successfully into the rest of the store has become so vital to the industry over the past couple of years that Clemens Family Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., assigned Dave Blaich, director of specialty markets, to oversee the integration of natural and organic foods in its stores.
"One of my main focuses in the beginning was to decide whether to integrate or segregate our natural and organic foods. After research, I decided that in our marketing area, an integrated approach would work best," Blaich said.
Within the traditional retailer sets in Center Store, Clemens placed curved-front, colored shelving -- black for specialty foods and copper for organic foods -- and added header cards highlighting which products were in each section.
"We also are using signage to highlight low-carb, natural and organic items on the shelf where they are not in the highlighted section," Blaich said. The chain also added mobile metro racks in each store featuring low-carb products.
"The good sellers have since been integrated in line into the dietetic sections," Blaich said. Organic, low-carb and other items are also advertised in separate sections within Clemens' ads.
For Clemens, assimilation with effective design and signs has paid off. "Consumer response has been very positive, as measured by increased sales in these areas," Blaich said.