Navigating Nutrition in the Aisles
By Elizabeth Hall, PhD, RDN, LDN, K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc.
Food packaging and promotional signage include a myriad of nutrition information sometimes contributing to confusion among shoppers. With nearly half of consumers focusing on health and nutrition as top priorities for meal inspiration  now, more than ever, retail dietitians can serve as a key resource for navigating nutrition messaging in the grocery aisles.
As a retail dietitian and PhD candidate in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I wanted to explore an intervention often used in grocery retail settings to do exactly that: to help guide customers to healthier purchases – shelf-label programs. My retailer had dabbled with various shelf-labeling programs in the past, but nothing really stuck. After a conversation with a colleague, Monica Amburn (we were at an RDBA conference!), we launched a 2-year research initiative to assess the effectiveness of shelf-label programs in increasing healthier purchases in grocery retail.
From previous literature, I knew that consumers report interest in nutrition-focused labeling of foods, [2-4] especially for products that are “nutritionally ambiguous”4 or for comparison purposes,  but effectiveness of these programs in influencing purchase behavior varies and often depends on the product itself  or the consumer’s previous knowledge of the label system. [7,8]
As retail dietitians, we know that product labeling comes in many forms and includes package messaging such as regulated health claims,  Front-of Package (FOP) labeling  and of course, the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) and ingredient lists. However, researchers suggest that the NFP’s complexity may deter use among some consumers,[11-13] potentially limiting its influence on purchase decision-making. 
I was well aware that many retailers highlight better-for-you options on the shelf edge through shelf-label programs [15,16] and that shelf aesthetics have been shown to capture shopper attention and influence purchase decisions.[17-21] Shelf-label programs, specifically, are the promotional program most noticed by consumers  and consumers report a strong affinity for nutrition information on shelf-labels  which influences their evaluation of products and ultimate product choice. [24-28] Also, shelf-labels are considered the last point of communication with a shopper at the point-of-purchase, which makes the shelf-edge an important location for nutrition education and potential influencer of better-for-you purchases.
As I began to explore the effectiveness of various shelf-label programs, I found that branding and messaging of these programs vary from use of validated nutrition claims and lifestyle attributes such as “heart healthy” or “whole grain”  to summary systems like nutrient quality scoring (e.g., Nuval) or graded ranking systems (e.g., Guiding Stars Program [GSP]). Although both Nuval and the GSP have displayed positive outcomes in the literature, [30-32] these programs were sometimes misinterpreted unless the consumer had prior nutrition-related knowledge of the product or label. [30,33]
From my engagement with other retail dietitians, I also knew that an emerging trend in retail is to brand shelf-label programs as being “dietitian-approved,” [34-41] especially as the scope of dietitians in retail continues to expand and grow. While there was not extensive literature on the effectiveness of these dietitian-branded programs specifically, I did find studies in consumer behavior literature showing that branding with a spokesperson or expert can increase product purchases, especially when the expert’s expertise is perceived by the consumer as congruent with what they are promoting. [42-45] I wondered if this consumer behavior theory, called the “match-up” hypothesis, [42-45] would extend to retail shelf-label programs branded with a dietitian as the expert.
For my dissertation project and in partnership with my retailer, K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., parent company to Food City supermarkets, and Vestcom’s healthyAisles, we embarked on a 6-month cluster-randomized controlled trial in which all 125 Food City stores were randomized to receive the “Dietitian’s Pick” shelf-label program, a general “healthy”-branded program, or no shelf-label program (the control group). I first worked with healthyAisles to develop the Dietitian’s Pick nutrient criteria, which was the same criteria that was also used for the “healthy” branded program. Throughout the study we conducted fidelity assessments and collected qualitative feedback from associates and customers, but our primary outcome measure was sales lift of products that received each version of the shelf-label program compared to control stores. Our results showed that both versions of the shelf-label program performed well throughout the study, with a statistically significant incremental lift in product sales and units sold observed in the 4th month of the evaluation period. The “Dietitian’s Pick” program came out on top when it came to raw sales data.
These findings are exciting and show the potential for shelf-label programs, especially those branded with a dietitian’s expertise, to serve as a positive promotional strategy to assist consumers in navigating nutrition information, potentially increasing sales, [31,34,46-52] improving the healthfulness of purchases, [30,33,48,53-58] and influencing growth in consumer loyalty initiatives.
To learn more details about this research, please join Vestcom’s Monica Amburn and I for the RDBA webinar Measuring the ROI and Shopper Impact of a Custom Dietitian’s Pick Attribute at the Shelf Edge scheduled for Tuesday, August 3rd at 12 CST. Check here to register.
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- Food Industry Association. 2014 report on retailer contributions to health and wellness. 2015. Available at: https://www.fmi.org/forms/store/ProductFormPublic/2014-report-on-retailer-contributions-to-health-wellness. Published 2015. Accessed January 16, 2021.
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