ELIZABETH, N.J. -- Wakefern Food Corp. here is reporting enthusiastic consumer acceptance of a shelf-tag program designed to highlight the health benefits of grocery products in its stores.
The program, called Nutri Guide, flags items that are low in calories, low in fat or cholesterol, very low in sodium or a source of fiber. It also includes an information booklet shoppers can take home and use as a reference. The program was introduced in all the wholesale-cooperative's member ShopRite stores in September.
"As far as we can tell, customers are responding very positively," said Laura McCafferty, a Wakefern spokeswoman. "We're basing that on the fact we're getting a lot of calls for additional copies [of the booklet], not only from your average, run-of-the-mill shopper, but from registered dietitians, nurses and people who work in the nutrition field who are requesting it as an aid in some of the work they do.
"It's a nationwide data base," she added. "ShopRite is the exclusive supermarket in this marketing area that's offering the Nutri Guide, so we send them our product list so the Nutri Guide can match it. This way, things aren't showing up in the booklet that we don't carry that maybe a store in California would be carrying."
McCafferty said Wakefern, which services approximately 170 supermarkets in the Northeast under the ShopRite banner, advertised the program when it first appeared in its stores and plans to do so "more regularly now."
More than 2,000 items throughout the store are included in the program. Products are classified for inclusion in the program based on the reference amounts used in the new food labeling regulations.
A low-fat food, for example, contains three grams or less of total fat per reference amount,
while a low-cholesterol food contains 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol and two grams or less of saturated fat per reference amounts. A very-low-sodium product contains less than 35 milligrams of sodium per reference amount. Low-calorie foods contain 40 calories or less per reference amount, while reduced-calorie foods have at least 25% fewer calories than a comparable product.
An early version of the program was developed by Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, in the late 1970s. The marketing rights to the program were acquired in 1979 by Creative Data Services, Earth City, Mo., which currently administers the program.
Janet Brooks, product manager for Creative Data, said the number of products in the Nutri Guide data base constantly changes as more items meet the criteria and others are discontinued.
"Any supermarket on the program can expect growth [in the number of items] as we find out that more and more items they carry qualify for the program," she said.
Stores can tailor the program to meet their specific needs, but Brooks said most stick to the same basic format. "There's some kind of color-coded shelf tag that flags the item on the shelf and some kind of booklet that lists the products that qualify for the program."
In Wakefern's stores, Nutri Guide items are marked by bright green shelf tags that list the applicable health benefits. Brooks said Raley's Supermarkets, West Sacramento, Calif., which also owns Bel Air Markets, in Sacramento, Calif., uses a three-color system under which lower-calorie foods are flagged by yellow shelf tags, lower-fat and cholesterol items are flagged by pink, and very-low-sodium products by green.
According to Brooks, the program is in place in approximately 1,500 stores, including chains such as Felpausch Food Centers, Hastings, Mich.; Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, and Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill.
"They tend to be chains that are very consumer oriented who want to have value-added services for their customers. There are a couple of other supermarkets that have developed their own nutrition programs with a similar concept to ours for their own purposes. Giant Food, for example, has had a program for a long time," Brooks said.
The annual cost of the Nutri Guide program averages $200 to $250 per store, Brooks said, adding that there is no cost to manufacturers whose products are included in the data base.
Neither McCafferty nor Brooks had data on whether the program has boosted sales of the items in the data base.
"We've not done any kind of scientific study, and to my knowledge none of our customers has done so either," said Brooks. "General feedback I tend to get is that it probably helps people make a different choice. They might go to the supermarket and say 'I need a salad dressing.' The Nutri Guide program will direct them maybe to a fat-free or reduced-calorie dressing, rather than the one they were going to buy when they went into the store. So it kind of influences the choices within the category."