Obesity: The Role of Retailers

Obesity: The Role of Retailers

November 27, 2013

Kimberly O'Hara

Everyone is talking about health and wellness, but prevention of obesity may be the more serious issue. Retailers sell food, and aside from the government, retailers have a unique and compelling opportunity to influence the food choices we all make. This is especially important for our children. According to FMI, we visit their members’ stores on average 1.6x per week. Few parents with children between six and 16 think their children are overweight. In reality, 33% are overweight or obese. More Focus on Obesity is in Order, Commentary by Harriet Hentges, Food Retail Sustainability Expert

Some retailers are making great strides in promoting health and wellness, but it may not be enough in the battle against obesity. While 90% of FMI members are using health and wellness in their marketing, there is not a great deal of emphasis on the high-risk category of shoppers as well as their own work force who are obese. In a phone consultation with Cathy Polley, R.Ph.,Vice President, Health & Wellness for FMI, The Food Journal addresses a few key topics that are relevant for retailer discussions internally and with their customers.

Retailer Limitations in Addressing Obesity

Messaging to shoppers must understandably address the greatest number who visit a store. Retailers face a challenge in crafting an in-store message on the dangers and steps for addressing obesity. In their 2013 report Shopping for Health, in partnership with Preventionmagazine and Rodale, FMI suggests addressing total shoppers, not one segment, and making the shopping experience as pleasant as possible. Shoppers don’t want to be preached to or told they are obese or overweight.

Information is one thing but lacking motivation to change behavior is another and behavior is hard to influence. Promos, coupons and disseminated info can help. The retailer can educate, and small steps are key. Highlighting that right mix of incentives, suggestions, tips and useful information among all the other things they communicate to the customer adds to the complexity in a dialogue about obesity. “If we give them simple nudges and simple solutions, we can get them there a step at a time,” stated Sharon Glass, Catalina Marketing VP, Health & Wellness Services, at the Robert Wood Foundation/The Food Trust hosted-meeting Harnessing the Power of Supermarkets to Help Reverse Childhood Obesity. Glass’s report,Helping Shoppers Overcome the Barriers to Choosing Healthful Foods, points out that “Just one-third to half of shoppers agree that their supermarket does more to promote healthy living beyond stocking healthy options.” This could mean many shoppers don’t even know their retailers could be helpful to them. 

Retailer Transparency With Obesity

Many retailers offer programs and classes (cooking and other), website info, Q & A, store tours, product sampling, literature, corporate and in-store dietitians. Eighty percent of FMI members do tours targeting diabetes and dietitian guided walk-throughs; 40 percent offer weight management programs/tours. There are very few retailer websites that use the word obesity. Those targeting it treat it as a chronic disease. While ShopRite stores have a dietitian in every store (This is considered one of the more promising trends by Cathy Polley), one has to dig into the Health Encyclopedia on their site to find the Obesity Treatment Overview. Hy-Vee is another retailer committed to a dietitian in every store and while their HyVee Dietitiansprovide Shopping Tours, HealthyBites, and the Begin Healthy Lifestyle and Weight Loss Program, obesity is found deep in their website under health conditions; HealthNotes: Weight Loss and Obesity.

Encouraging Retailer Practices

Retailers and growers recognize that the heightened customer health awareness helps to increase the sale of produce. This is a win-win solution which has prompted a drive for better and more abundant produce.

The customers’ desires for help in distinguishing what is “healthy” led to a variety of scoring or labeling systems from Hannaford’s Guiding Stars to Ahold USA’s Health Ideas to theNuVal scoring system. Mejier uses the NuVal scoring system. “We chose Nu-Val to help people find healthy food at a glance,” says Shari Steinbach, MS, RD, Meijer Supercenters Healthy Living Manager. “It’s an independent system not connected to any food company and based in science.” In regards to obesity transparency at Meijer, Shari says, “We try to focus on the masses and look particularly at what our shoppers are focused on:  How do I get a healthy meal on the table but do it easily and affordable? We have recipes online as well as how to set up your own home gym for under $75 (Meijer sells exercise equipment in all their stores) and provide instructions on what to do with that equipment. If it’s not easy and affordable, they are not going to do it.” Interview with Shari Steinbach, MS, RD, Healthy Living Manager - Meijer Supercenters

H-E-B did a weight loss competition: the H-E-B Slim Down Showdown. During the 12 week H-E-B Slim Down Showdown presented by Dole, 25 contestants from across Texas worked hard to adopt healthy habits and shed pounds. During the challenge, the contestants lost more than 700 pounds. In addition to weight loss, the contestants significantly improved their health biometrics and wrote blogs, generating 38,636 comments and hundreds of thousands of page views.   

Regional Practices

While obesity rates vary somewhat by geography, retailers can’t design policies and practices on a state-by-state basis, although they are proactive in the states where they have stores. Meijer works very closely with their state health coalitions, particularly the Michigan Health and Wellness 4X4 Plan. The 4X4 Plan looks at four different parameters for health: BMI (Body Mass Index), blood pressure, cholesterol level and blood glucose level. Meijer is one of their retailer partners. MI Healthier Tomorrow is another Michigan program where several thousand people have pledged to lose 10% of their body weight.

Prevention Versus Treatment

SECU is the academic initiative of the Southeastern Conference. The annual SEC Symposium was designed to address pressing issues by using the research strengths of the fourteen SEC member universities. The topic for their 2014 symposium is Prevention of Obesity:  Overcoming a 21st Century Health Challenge. Torie Johnson, Executive Director, explains, “Obesity will be discussed with a focus on prevention versus treatment. The holistic approach to obesity prevention through diet, as well as awareness on a community, faith-based, and government level will be addressed. The proposal came from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The SEC Chancellors and Presidents choose topics they feel have importance on a national and global level. This topic was recommended a year and a half ago with the understanding it would still be one of significance in fall 2014.” 

Former FDA commissioner and MD David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating looks at compulsive overeating. WebMD feature outlines Kessler’s suggestions: instead of simply going on a diet, change the approach to food, and learn to enjoy the foods you control. Supermarket dietitians can help shoppers learn about healthy snacking choices versus fatty salty ones. This is a long-term process, and the number of dietitian programs can’t begin to address the magnitude of the problem. One can hope that some of these programs can go to scale and/or get replicated. While retailers have the potential to address the problem because of their knowledge of food and their position to influence, it is not to be expected that they will solve the problem. 

This national problem merits everyone’s attention. Retailers have unique opportunities because they are an integral part of our lives, communities and a trusted source of information about the foods we eat.