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How to create a healthy store plan

In his latest book, food psychologist Brian Wansink reveals how grocers can get shoppers to buy more healthy food

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Dr. Brian Wansink, author of the bestselling Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think–the book that dug into how and why people make their food choices–has a new book out that would make a useful addition to any grocer’s library.

In Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, published by William Morrow (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers), Wansink shares practical ideas for design changes in everywhere from homes to schools that can make it easier for people to eat healthier.

He devotes a lot of ink to presenting realistic solutions for grocery stores. In a chapter devoted to supermarket makeovers, the food psychologist writes of how he approached the Danish government to help that country’s grocers make it easier for shoppers to buy healthier foods.

Wansink and his team at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, in New York, where Wansink is director, set out to develop a healthy supermarket makeover plan that would be cheap, easy and profitable for stores to implement. Luckily, the team was given an entire island off the eastern coast of Denmark (specifically Bornholm, population: 42,000) to test its plan.

The team used its recordings from a “Kleenex cam,”a small movie camera rigged into a Kleenex box, to inconspicuously follow shoppers; plus notes, stopwatch times and data from thousands of similar shoppers, to focus on design changes in five areas of the store: carts, layouts, aisles, signs and checkout lines.

As you’ll see in the following edited excerpt from Slim by Design, their research related to store redesign, from Bornholm and at grocery stores in other cities around the world, is packed full of takeaways that apply whether you’re a grocer on a Danish island or in Canada. –Alicia Androich

Carts

When most of us shop, fruit and vegetables take up only 24% of our cart. But suppose your grocery store sectioned a cart in half by taping a piece of yellow duct tape across the middle interior. And suppose they put a sign in the front of the cart that recommended that you put all the fruit and vegetables in the front and all the other foods in the back. It just encourages shoppers to ask themselves whether the food in their hand goes in the front or back of the cart.

We made a few dozen of these divided carts to test at supermarkets in Williamsburg, Va., and Toronto. Shoppers with these divided carts spent twice as much on fruit and vegetables. They also spent more money at the store–about 25% more.

Will a divided, half-cart approach be profitable? It can if it can sell more perishable produce–such as fruit and vegetables. All that’s needed is a visual divider in a few of your carts and a sign in the front that says, “Put your fruit and vegetables in the front of your cart.”

If grocers don’t want to bust out the duct tape, they can use printable mats for the bottom of the cart that make that suggestion–fruit and vegetables in the front half and everything else in back.

Layout

We followed 259 shoppers in Washington grocery stores to see if a person shops differently depending on which aisle they’re in. We discovered that most people with shopping carts behave the same way: They walk through the produce section, then turn and go down Aisle 2 (which leads back toward the front of the store). It almost doesn’t matter what’s in the aisle–health food, dog food or mops. At this point, shopping’s still a fun adventure. But after Aisle 2, shoppers get mission oriented and start skipping aisles as they look for only what they think they need. So, Aisle 2 gets the most love and attention from the most shoppers.

To make a grocery store more slim by design, managers could easily load up this aisle with whatever healthier food is most profitable for them. This might be store-brand canned vegetables, whole-grain foods or high-margin lower-calorie foods. First in sight is first in cart.

One way to help shoppers fill up their carts with healthy foods is to make sure those are the aisles they visit first and stay in longest. People cherry-pick their favourite fruit and vegetables and quickly move to the centre of the store, but you can keep them in the produce area longer by angling displays so they guide shoppers through the store–think of the 30- and 45-degree angles you used to see in those old-school pinball games. Also, green lines [two-inch-wide dashed floor decals] seem to nudge most of us, at least occasionally, to turn in a direction we otherwise wouldn’t have turned in.

Since shoppers are more likely to buy healthy foods when their carts are empty, stores should load up Aisles 1, 2 and 3 with whatever’s healthiest and most profitable.

Aisles

The more time you spend in an aisle, the more you buy. In order for us to buy healthy food, we need to (1) see it and (2) have the time to pick it off the shelf.

But not all shelves are the same. Food placed at eye level is easier to spot and buy. We observed 422 people purchasing thousands of products in the Washington area. First we estimated the height of each shopper. We then measured the height of each product they looked at. Based on where they looked, wecould figure out what percentage of the foods they bought were at eye level. If you’re shopping in a narrow aisle, 61% of everything you’ll buy is within one foot of your eye level–either one foot above or one foot below. This is useful to know if you’re a grocery-store owner who wants to sell healthier foods. Smart store managers can put these profitable healthy foods at eyeball level. If the product is one that’s typically bought by males, it can be placed even five inches higher, since the average male is that much taller than the average female.

Many grocery store aisles range from six- to eight-feet wide. In the Washington grocery stores, we measured the width of all the aisles and timed how long the average shopper spent in them. Indeed, the wider the aisle, the more they bought. It didn’t matter what was there–canned brussels sprouts, 20-pound bags of cat food, dishwashing liquid–the more time they spent in the aisles, the more items they bought. Grocers could put more healthy, high-margin food in wider aisles and less healthy food in narrower ones.

Signs

When I was the executive director in charge of the Dietary Guidelines and people asked me how they should eat, although not the official USDA-sanctioned answer, my shortcut answer was to simply encourage them to use my lab’s “half-plate rule.”

Half of their plate had to be filled with fruit, vegetables or salad; and the other half could be anything they wanted. It could be lamb, a blueberry muffin, a handful of cheese . . . anything. Giving people freedom–a licence to eat with only one simple guideline–seems to keep them in check.

Using our half-plate rule works amazingly well at home, but only if you also use it when you shop. Supermarkets don’t have to talk about servings of fruit and vegetables to get the point across. All they need to do is to reinforce the idea that half a plate could hold whatever fruit, vegetables or salad a personanted. They can do this on signs, specials, recipes or in-store promotions–and subtly encourage people to fill their cart with slightly more fruit and vegetables than they typically do.

Checkout lines

The checkout line is filled with guilty-pleasure rewards at the end of the ho-hum errand of shopping. There are bizarre new gum flavours such as mango chutney mint, meal-size candy bars and irresistibly tacky tabloids with headlines like “Cellulite of the Stars.”

There’s usually nothing in the aisle that we actually need, but after 45 minutes of seeing food, guess what we want? It’s not a snack-size can of lima beans. So we buy the Heath bar we swore we’d never buy again, finish it by the time we leave the parking lot, and shake our head on the way home… just as we did last week.

One supermarket solution is to set up at least one checkout line so it’s totally candy-free. Just as large supermarkets have different lines for “10 items or less” or “cash only,” some lines could have candy, others could have healthy snacks and some could be totally free of food. The stores could still sell magazines and other crazy things–like eyeglass repair kits and super- glue–but one or two aisles wouldn’t have any food at all.

To see what tired shoppers in grocery store parking lots thought of this idea, we asked, “If your favourite supermarket had 10 checkout lines, how many should be candy lines, healthy lines or food-free lines?” Here’s what we found:

  • – Men shopping alone wanted all candy lines
  • – Women shopping alone wanted more of the healthy food lines
  • – Mothers shopping with children wanted more food-free lines
  • – Fathers shopping with children didn’t exist

Back to Bornholm

The more changes we made to the grocery stores in Bornholm, the more other groups got involved. Before long, a public health advertising campaign was being rolled out, petitions were launched and local ordinances were proposed. After the kitchen smoke clears, it will be difficult to see which of these moved the dial the most—but the people on the island are buying in to becoming slim by design.

These supermarket makeovers were cheap and easy to make. Many were done over a weekend, and we projected each of them would turn a profit within a month, if not immediately. Still, if even one works, stores will be further ahead than before. On my most recent trip, they asked me to help expand it to the mainland, so some hidden sales numbers must be looking pretty good. It’s the beauty of being slim by design.

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