GREENACRES, Wash. -- Tidyman's here is helping its shoppers "See the Light," literally, when it comes to making healthy food choices.
See the Light is the 10-store independent's new nutritional education program, which uses trademarked traffic light shelf tags -- called "FATsignals" -- to quickly flag the fat content of each grocery product to consumers.
group products according to their nutritional characteristics. For instance, a green light signals food that is 30% or less fat by calories, which is the U.S. dietary recommendation guideline for a low-fat diet. Yellow points to food that is 31% to 49% fat by calories and red flags food that is 50% or higher fat by calories.
While Tidyman's is not the first retailer to develop a program that helps consumers identify low-fat grocery items, its inclusion of a red light breaks new ground and brings some risk into the game. After all, "red" means stop, and there's the chance consumers would stop buying red-lighted foods, or buy less of them.
"It was a courageous step on Tidyman's part," admitted Karen Ferguson, Tidyman's health educator who developed the program, which was launched in August. But so far, the program has only met with kudos, Ferguson told SN. "It's been extremely positive; there hasn't been any negative feedback at all."
As Tidyman's executives initially discussed the project, one of the first internal questions about the campaign was, " 'Why don't we just use green?' But we felt that's really not giving the complete message," Ferguson said.
At this point in the program's early life, Tidyman's has not done any isolated research to ascertain how the FATsignals may be affecting grocery sales. However, Ferguson said the company is currently testing consumer awareness of the program.
"We're still selling [red-light] foods. Health is a balancing act. We suggest eating red-light items and balancing them with more green lights. We strive for a 4-to-1 ratio," she explained.
"For instance, if you have fried chicken [red], then, if asked, we suggest balancing that with mashed potatoes, green beans and a salad with a light dressing. We would never say stop; we only say use it sparingly. We allow customers to make a decision for themselves. And it's been well-received."
In other words, Tidyman's is counting on consumers not taking the stop light too literally. The symbol was "just an easy icon that serves as a really quick tool for a person to scan the shelves and make a fast decision," Ferguson said.
And it was this idea, of helping shoppers make fast decisions, that's at the heart of Tidyman's FATsignals.
Using survey research gathered from sources such as in-house focus groups and the Food Marketing Institute, Tidyman's discovered that consumers were most concerned about fat in regard to grocery and nutrition.
"But even more than that, what we heard to a much larger extent was the fact that, while they had a really high rate of concern, consumers said they didn't want to take the time and read every single label."
Hence, the universally understood traffic light icon to offer direction. However, for those who may want further information, the suggestion "Please read product label" is included on every FATsignal tag.
Ferguson, who holds a master's degree in health education, developed comprehensive brochures to help teach consumers more about the FATsignals, and how they correspond to the Food Guide Pyramid. Tidyman's also placed large overhead signs in the store to call attention to the shelf tags and remind consumers what the three signals represent.
When asked if she's received any flak from manufacturers whose products have been given a "red-food" tag, Ferguson said none has materialized.
If a shopper picks a "red-light" item, no sirens go off, she added. "All we're trying to do is provide a customer service. If they want to know the information, it's there. We also have a lot of customers who could care less about it. They're not even going to be interested in it at all.
"We do not say this food is better than this food. We're not making any claims," she pointed out. "All we're doing is taking information that is already on the package and just iconing it to make a quick and easy decision."
Ferguson said that many manufacturers have been very supportive of the program, because most of them have product lines across the entire spectrum of nutristional characteristics.
"For example, Frito-Lay, which has some high-fat foods, has come out with the low-fat Tostitos chip with one gram of fat. And they're just thrilled the program is getting customers into their aisle," she explained.
And therein lies what Ferguson says is one of the big benefits of the See the Light program for Tidyman's: The Fatsignals are bringing people back into grocery categories that used to be nutritionally taboo.
"A lot of people assume some foods are higher in fat than they really are. Perceived high fat foods, such as pizza, are gaining popularity because there are green-, yellow- and red-light pizzas produced by the same manufacturer.
"Corn nuts is another example," she continued. "It's a green-light food all the way, yet people wouldn't think that because it's related to the nut family.
"It's the same with other products -- for example, cookies, spaghetti sauce and salad dressings. Customers are coming back into aisles they often avoided before."
Burt Flickinger, an industry consultant with New York-based A.T. Kearney, said Tidyman's program is "very unique and a smart move.
"This is a terrific initiative; it's really going to help consumers and, ultimately, this unique move is going to help sales revenue and profitability," Flickinger said. "And it will help other retailers who will evaluate it and incorporate it into their marketing strategy.
"To date, the only retailers that have been doing an effective job in nutrition and labeling have been the whole foods and natural foods retailers such as Whole Foods, based in Texas, and Loblaw in Canada.
"But, by and large, the major chains in the United States have been doing little good new work in that area, and have over-relied on government nutritional and labeling information," Flickinger said.
Indeed, Ferguson said that she and her company are interested in assisting other chains to develop similar programs in markets where Tidyman's does not compete.
The in-store FATsignals campaign is just one component of the See the Light program. The retailer has created a three-pronged approach to bring the nutritional message to its community. There's also a school-based curriculum, which will reach more than 12,550 grade school students, and a health education component for adults.
In a series of school events, Tidyman's spends a day training 10th graders about nutrition and label reading. Dubbed "The Light Squad," these teenagers then deliver the message to kids in the 3rd through 6th grades.
"They'll be able to 'See the Light' at Tidyman's, of course, but we do give them the educational component to make label-reading decisions on their own," said Ferguson. "All the schools, where our stores are located -- in Washington, Montana and Idaho -- are on board."
While Tidyman's program is about as comprehensive as you can get, there are a few grocery categories left unsignaled.
"We decided not to tag baby food for the obvious reasons that parents of children under two should not be concerned with the amount of fat going into their babies' bodies," Ferguson explained.
"And, of course, we're not going to tag alcohol. Even though they don't necessarily have fat in them, we would not want to say 'go,' because that can contribute to harm as far as excessive drinking is concerned."
Because the perishables departments are under a volunteer labeling program, with no government-required label, Tidyman's adapted the FATsignals program to coincide with a less intense level of labeling. It will continue to develop ways to incorporate the program in perishables, Ferguson said.
"We would like to move in that direction as soon as we can," she explained, "but until that time, what we've done is create a little brochure that we give to our customers. In the meat department, for example, we have itemized about 20 to 40 items to give them an idea of different cuts of meats, using the green, yellow and red lights." Ferguson created similar charts for the produce, bakery and deli departments as well.