SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Hannaford Bros. shoppers are reaching for the stars.
Items earning the symbols as part of the retailer's Guiding Stars nutrition rating system are shooting off shelves up to four times faster than their star-free counterparts, when their movement is compared to that of the year prior to the program's launch.
Hannaford arrived at Guiding Stars' first-year results by comparing sales data from the first 12 months of its program to the same time period one year before its September 2006 kickoff. Out of more than 25,500 rated food items merchandised throughout the store, only 28% receive either one, two or three stars indicating good, better or best nutritional value.
The greatest change took place in Center Store, where selection of packaged goods bearing at least one star grew at 2.5 times the rate of items without stars.
“This is not a surprise to me at all, because in the packaged goods section you're faced with hundreds of choices of items like cereal,” said Caren Epstein, spokeswoman for Hannaford. “It makes it more difficult to make a decision between and among brands.”
Guiding Stars is narrowing the field of contenders. Selection of breakfast cereal with stars increased 3.5 times more than star-free cereal sales, which increased only slightly since Guiding Stars' launch.
The most dramatic category growth took place in the frozen food section, where movement of frozen entrees bearing stars grew about 4.5 times faster than items without them.
But not all sections' shoppers proved to be stargazers. The nutritional rating system had no impact on sales in the bakery and seafood departments, where signs are used instead of shelf tags to display the number of stars an item has earned.
Product type also seemed to influence shoppers' need to consult the Guiding Stars.
“In the seafood section there is a widely held perception that all seafood is healthy; also, consumers are generally less open to trial in this area,” said Epstein. “They buy what they like, so if you eat haddock regularly, you might not go for tilapia. These factors can be coupled with the fact that the signage is different and people are focusing more on the product because it's fresh.”
The program's impact was evident in other fresh sections. Movement of all meats and poultry with stars grew more than 2.5 times the rate of those without stars. The starred ground beef selection in particular increased by 7% during the year since the program was launched, while sales of star-free ground beef dropped by 5%. Starred chicken sales grew by 5%, while selection of chicken without stars decreased by 3%.
In the dairy section, sales of whole milk, which earned zero stars, dropped by 4%, while selection of three-star fat-free milk rose 1%. Yogurt with stars grew 3.5 times faster than yogurt without stars.
“Based on the number of shoppers who've gone through our stores and their basket sizes, we're talking about more than a billion food product decisions since Guiding Stars was launched,” said Epstein.
That number is expected to grow exponentially. Baby foods were scheduled to be added to the Guiding Stars system last week, and 82% of all products in the category earned at least one star. Star ratings for oils and other fats will be added later this year, while items such as bottled water, coffees, teas, spices and other foods with five or fewer calories per manufacturer's serving size aren't eligible to join the program because they don't provide a significant source of nutrients.
One year after its inception, customer awareness of Guiding Stars is at 81% — an all-time high.
“If you ask anyone in the business of consumer awareness, that's an incredibly high number,” noted Epstein. “The reason we've been able to do it is because we've got signs all over the store, and brochures; Guiding Stars is advertised on-air and extensively on our website; and we have an Ask the Nutritionist hotline.”
The 160-store chain has fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls from shoppers expressing their appreciation, she said.
“The credibility of Hannaford's investment in the community and its authority to speak about food's role in wellness deeply resonates with shoppers,” said Jim Hertel, managing partner of Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill. “Hannaford has set a fairly high and objective bar with this program — not even one-third of items gets a star — that goes a long way to reinforce from the shopper's point of view that Hannaford is looking out for them.”
Currently, Hannaford's sister banner, Sweetbay, has the Guiding Stars program in place, and Food Lion, also a Delhaize banner, will launch Guiding Stars sometime next year.
Other retailers have approached Hannaford about licensing the patent-pending program in their stores.
“We've not taken anything further than some initial discussions, and interest was dependent on the first year's results,” said Epstein.
Hannaford has poured countless man-hours into establishing and maintaining its Guiding Stars system. The program's concept was developed after an analysis of consumer surveys identified how Hannaford shoppers might best be served.
“We recognized that this program was beyond the scope of what retailers typically do,” said Epstein. “That's when we developed an advisory board made of experts from outside of Hannaford, including nutritionists, health care professionals and MDs.”
In order to rate packaged goods, Hannaford Bros.' nutritionists visit the product's Nutrition Facts label and its ingredients list. As part of an arduous process, information is keyed into a database and run through an algorithm, noted Epstein.
“We were at this for the better part of two and half years before it ever saw the light of day,” she said. “There isn't a single part of our business that wasn't impacted.”
Foods are scored based on a balance of credits and debits. Items earn credits for vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and whole grains, and are debited for saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol and added sodium and sugars. An item's total points determine whether it will receive zero, one, two or three stars. Since they're not listed on an item's nutrition panel or in its ingredient list, health benefits such as omega-3s and monounsaturated fats, or whether a product is organic, aren't taken into consideration. To level the playing field between portion-controlled products and more conventionally portioned items, units of 100 calories are considered for scoring.
All fruits and vegetables have earned stars, 51% of cereals, 41% of seafood, 22% of dairy, 21% of meat, 7% of soups and 7% of bakery items.
Hannaford claims that Guiding Stars is the first in-store, storewide navigation system that recognizes a range of attributes found in food. It contends that other retailers' programs are limited to private-label products and consumer packaged goods.
Earlier this year, Publix launched its Nutrition Information Program, which uses shelf tags to identify carbohydrate count and up to four nutrition claims, such as low-calorie, low-fat or a good source of fiber. United Supermarkets uses three types of shelf tags — heart healthy/diabetes management, gluten-free and organic — to identify foods that fit into these categories.
Retailers including Publix, Giant Eagle, Raleys, Supervalu and Brookshire Brothers are participating in the Take a Peak program that's designed to reduce consumer confusion about the government's MyPyramid nutritional guidelines. Developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and Matchpoint Marketing, the campaign leverages in-store media tools, including shelf tags, educational brochures, coupons, floor graphics and in-store radio, plus direct-mail communications.
Safeway is simplifying nutritional choices made by shoppers with its Eating Right store-brand line. Each product's package bears an icon indicating its greatest wellness attribute, whether it be high in protein or low in fat. Attributes are color-coded for easy selection.