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Building a Successful Nutrition Information Program

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Food has been a topic in the news lately, ranging from “pink slime” to crushed beetles to red meat’s role in early death. There are countless other references — both local and global — relating to our food supply and what’s really going on there. It seems as though we are being inundated with bad news about our food supply, and the ingredients being “hidden” inside processed food.

I recently attended the FMI Health & Wellness conference in Orlando, and the interest in food labeling and communication was immediately apparent. Virtually every major food retailer was there looking for new ideas to communicate more effectively with their shoppers about nutrition. Based on the conversations I had with many of those retailers, they are being asked by their customers to provide better, i.e. trustworthy, information about the products those retailers are selling.

Combine these two elements: growing interest from shoppers about nutrition, along with a distinct concern over food quality, and you have a big opportunity for retailers to engage shoppers in a meaningful way.

Nutrition programs at the shelf edge aren’t really new. Way back in the early 1980s there was a program called “Nutriguide” that listed specific attributes for packaged products. Since then many more have come along, all claiming to make the shopping experience better by providing easier access to nutrition information.

The majority of these programs focus on some sort of scoring system — scales run the gamut from a 1-3 “good, better, best,” all the way to 1-100 or more. The challenge with these systems is the science that goes into them. Scoring is all based on some proprietary algorithm which takes into account all sorts of esoteric information and spits out a number.

On the other hand, shoppers are looking for more transparency. A mathematical “black box” doesn’t really respond to consumer interest in knowing more about what they are buying. Let’s not forget the ill-fated “SmartChoices” program sponsored by the CPG industry that labeled sugar-filled cereal as a better choice. It doesn’t take much to destroy consumer confidence.

So what should a retailer look for in a nutrition program? There are three critical components to a successful nutrition program that will stand up to shopper scrutiny and provide ongoing value:

  1. Be as transparent as possible – make the source of the information clear and easy to understand for everyone. Super-secret algorithms that can’t be understood by the average shopper, or programs that require a multi-page handout to explain them, don’t make for a good shopping experience.
     
  2. Use a credible source for that information — something like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the United States Department of Agriculture. If a recommendation for a product is being made, it’s helpful for the buyer to know what authority is making that recommendation. This is important, because ultimately it’s the retailer’s reputation that is at stake.
     
  3. Be agnostic — don’t allow the facts to be manipulated or twisted, and ensure that all ratings are comparable across products. Manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to “buy in” to a program.

A few retailers are running programs internally; while this isn’t impossible, it is much more difficult than meets the eye. There are complexities involved in the gathering and scoring of food nutrition data that aren’t immediately apparent, but that can’t be ignored. Trying to create and manage a nutrition program is not really what food retailers are best at.

Responding to the shopper’s need for better nutrition information doesn’t need to be a hardship for the retailer, but a shopper-centric strategy is critical when considering the options. Shoppers want a trusted source of information, and handled correctly, this need presents a tremendous opportunity for retailers to engage their shoppers in-store, and provide a strong point of differentiation.

The secret — as always — is to start with the shopper, and keep her needs front and center. What does she really want, and what is the best way to provide that information to her? Follow that rule and the right path will always be evident. 

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