Published: November 08, 2010
Grocery stores are not necessarily designed to help customers choose the healthiest food. Signs and specials advertise chips and soda, and the coupons are usually for the pre-packaged, processed foods advertised by big brand-name companies with deep pockets.
So how's a lowly banana going to compete for attention?
Some stores are getting wise to shoppers' desires to eat better, as well as the challenges they face in doing so. Some are subtly shifting the focus to healthier products by using the same marketing tricks the large food companies and restaurants have used for years. The bonus for them is that they can sell more and waste less.
Brian Wansink, the co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, says grocery store sales goals are compatible with public health goals. "Grocery stores want you to buy healthy things. They want you to buy produce, because if produce goes bad, they lose money," he says.
But just putting more produce and healthy food choices in the aisles is not going to cut it, he says. "Even when you give people these incredibly healthy stores, they're not buying escarole and tofu -- no, they're buying what they want. It's not escarole and tofu simply because it's in front of them," he says.
Wansink is also the author of Mindless Eating, a book about why we eat what we eat, and the subtle cues that make that happen.
He's done a lot of research on produce and found that there are small things stores can do that will help them move a lot more volume of the healthy stuff.
Take product placement and soft, focused lighting, for example. Items that are highlighted in this way -- even if they aren't on sale -- sell about 30 percent more, Wansink says. They just look more appealing than products under harsh, overhead fluorescent lights.
Leading Customers To Good Nutrition
One company that's taken some of this kind of advice to heart is Wegmans, a regional grocery store chain located primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region.
And it seems to work.
Like many people, Terri Williams of Bladensburg, Md., struggles with eating better. She wants to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in her diet, for one thing. But it's a challenge, she says. Her daughters are grown and out of the house, and she doesn't cook much for herself.
But when she walks into the brand new Wegmans in Lanham, Md., for the first time, she gets excited.
The produce section is front and center. Williams' eyes light up when she spies some of her favorite vegetables, lit by a soft spotlight, and right by the entrance.
"We're going to get some candy yams," she says excitedly, and starts piling several into her shopping cart and talking about how she'll roast them later.
And that's exactly the kind of enthusiasm Krystal Register wants to hear. She's a registered dietician and a staff nutritionist at Wegmans. It's her job to help customers and employees make healthier food choices.
"We actually have lightened the ceiling in this new store, and we're using some natural light with some high windows, and yes, we direct the lighting right on the product," she says.
Register shows off the new store to a visitor: Near the produce, a trained vegetable adviser prepares some of the featured items for customers to taste. She hands out advice and recipes with a smile.
"I love that the vegetables are right there, before you get to the processed food," says Gretchen Muir of Upper Marlboro, Md., who was shopping with her husband, Kenny, on a recent weekday.
Muir also thinks the store's varied offerings improve the neighborhood's food choices. "There's too much fast food in this area," she adds.
Around the corner from produce, there's the smell of prepared foods being cooked and served. Smells can be used as an enticer, rather than just "fanning them out of the building," as many stores do, says David Glenn, a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut. Glenn spent 20 years in food marketing before returning to school and is working on ways to improve kids' diets using marketing like this.
And then there's the Wegmans bakery, where rows of whole grain breads sit side by side with white bread -- they're not relegated to the back corner somewhere.
The frozen pizza is placed right next to the frozen vegetables at the end of another aisle, and that's by design, says Register.
"Our mission ... is to help our customers with good nutrition in the aisles, and on the plate," she says.
Aside from lighting, it's important to put healthy products at eye level, Wansink says. "What you're doing is encouraging people to take stuff that's right in front of their eyes," he says. That way, they don't have to work, looking up and down.
Also, take a hint from a good restaurant menu. Describe the foods you want to highlight a little, he says.
For example, if you describe something as "succulent Italian seafood filet" rather than just "seafood filet," it will sell 27 percent more, according to Wansink's research for Mindless Eating.
And then there's the concept of anchoring. That's when stores offer a deal on a set amount of items. It makes people buy more than they ordinarily would, because that limited-amount number sticks in their brains, he says.
Wansink admits that even well-educated consumers fall for marketing. Shortly after he published research on anchoring, he found himself with a friend in the checkout aisle, where he saw a special on gum.
He says he saw a sign advertising eight packs for $1, and started counting them out on the conveyor belt. His friend pointed out that he had just done studies on the topic, and, he says, he started putting the gum back.
Don't Overdo It
The danger with these marketing tools is in going overboard, bombarding people with public health messages about how they should eat better. If people feel persuaded, they will resist, Wansink says. Stores have got to make the shoppers feel like it's their choice.
"It's like when you're at a stoplight and the light turns green and the person behind you honks all of a sudden, what do you do? You pull away a little slower," he says.
These marketing methods may be a little bit trickier when you're a small mom-and-pop shop. But research shows that some simple changes can work.
Romny Tejeda runs a small urban market in Hartford, Conn. When he first added fresh fruit and vegetables to the inventory of Romny Mini Mart a few years ago, he put them in the back of the store.
He found that he was throwing away a lot of spoiled produce -- until he moved those items up front, by the door, just like the bigger stores do.
"I used to probably sell a case of bananas every three days, now it's pretty much two a day -- two cases a day," he says.
The same goes for the avocados, peppers and tomatoes he's recently added. In fact, he's expanding his fresh food offerings and is putting in a large new refrigerator case to keep the items fresh. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Another way to stay healthy is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. NPR's April Fulton tells us how markets big and small are capitalizing on the demand for healthful, fresh food.
Mr. ROMNY TEJEDA (Owner, Romny Mini Market): Hey. How you doing this morning?
APRIL FULTON: Romny Tejeda and his brother have owned the Romny Mini Market in Hartford, Connecticut, for the last 17 years.�
(Soundbite of cash register)
FULTON: The market carries the usual convenience-store items: soda, laundry detergent and candy. It also has a small deli on one side. A few years ago, Tejeda decided to add fresh fruits and vegetables. He wanted to give the place more of a one-stop-shopping feel. At first, he piled up the produce in the back. But that didn't really work.
Mr. TEJEDA: It was not selling in the back. It was the fruits and vegetables that - were just getting spoiled.
FULTON: After throwing out two-thirds of his produce, Tejeda decided to try the fresh items up front, near the register.
Mr. TEJEDA: The bananas, I mean, I used to probably sell a case of banana every three days. Now it's pretty much two a day - two cases a day.
FULTON: He's now able to expand the produce section from one refrigerator shelf to four.
Mr. TEJEDA: Instead of just having green peppers, we're going to have the green, the red - and the same thing with the apples and oranges and stuff.
FULTON: Tejeda's success selling fresh food doesn't surprise Brian Wansink. He co-directs the Center for Behavioral Economics and Child Nutrition at Cornell University. Wansink studies the subtle cues that guide what people eat, and what they buy.
Professor BRIAN WANSINK (Co-director, Center for Behavioral Economics and Child Nutrition, Cornell University): The typical person is much more likely to buy something in the first aisle they walk down than the second aisle. They're more likely to buy something in the second aisle that they walk down than the third -or the fourth or the fifth.
FULTON: That's because people are less pressed for time when they first walk into a store, and they're more likely to pick something up on impulse, he says. Capturing that impulse works in small stores like Tejeda's. But big, suburban supermarket chains take it much further. For example, Wegmans supermarket gets people to buy more nutritious foods by using the same tools snack food companies have used for years - which could mean healthier consumers, and healthier profits for the grocery.
Krystal Register is a Wegmans nutritionist. This is one of their brand-new stores that just opened in Lanham, Maryland.
Ms. KRYSTAL REGISTER (Nutritionist, Wegmans): When you first walk into our stores, you are seeing the rainbow of colors of the produce department.
FULTON: The produce department is the heart of this store. The first thing you see when you walk in is yams. Krystal Register says everything is stacked just so.
Ms. REGISTER: We do have the beautiful cauliflower up here, too, the purple and white.
FULTON: Everybody who walked by stopped to take a look at yams and cauliflower. Register explains why the food looks so good.
Ms. REGISTER: We actually have lightened the ceiling in this new store, and we're using some natural light with some high windows. And then, yes, we direct the lighting right on the product.
FULTON: It looks like the broccoli is a star on stage. Next, she takes me over to the frozen section, where lots of frozen vegetables are displayed in cases right at eye level. Research shows that people are 35 percent more likely to choose foods that are within inches of eye level. But also, the frozen green beans are displayed right next to the frozen Salisbury steak.
Ms. REGISTER: Chicken, pizza rolls, tater tots, special-blend vegetables, strawberries, waffles - so you can kind of see, okay, I can get fruit in with breakfast. I can get veggies in with lunch or dinner...
FULTON: Brian Wansink, of Cornell, has also found that when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, the cheapest price is not always the best way to attract customers - even cost-conscious customers.
Prof. WANSINK: When you sell produce, it's not about making it a deal. If you tell somebody, hey, I'll give you an apple for 20 percent off, you're not going to buy an apple.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WANSINK: But if you say, hey, hey, I've got - this is a Courtland apple, you know, and it's 5 percent more. People go, oh, yeah. You know, I'm sick of those Delicious apples. I'll pay 5 percent more to get something that I think is going to be cooler and a little bit more tasty.
FULTON: So while we still may be a nation of Big Mac eaters, our demand for healthier food is growing. The Food Marketing Institute says a grocery store's produce section makes up more than 10 percent of a supermarket's sales, just behind meats. And their newest study shows shoppers are preparing more meals at home than they did last year. And that's an opportunity for grocery stores.
April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.