New imperatives for catering to shoppers' health needs

David Orgel
Principal, David Orgel Consulting

The lockdowns may be ending, but concerns remain.  

There is growing evidence that a significant portion of consumers are embracing healthier strategies — from nutrition to fitness — in response to the pandemic. This is a notable shift and an important opportunity for retailers to address these needs. 

A new report from the International Food Information Council, “2020 Food & Health Survey,” found the pandemic has led more than 20% of consumers to eat healthier than usual.

Recent research, “U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends: The Impact of COVID-19,” from FMI – The Food Industry Association, found 36% of consumers said they feel they now eat healthier compared with before COVID-19 became a national concern. Younger consumers in particular are placing emphasis on maintaining a healthy body while staying at home.

Which products and categories are being favored? One such segment is natural products. An IRI and Spins report, “COVID-19 and Navigating the Path Ahead: Supporting the Natural Products Consumer,” found natural products displayed strong momentum during the pandemic. “More consumers are turning to natural remedies to enhance immune systems and reduce additional stress and anxiety,” the report said. 

To be clear, some consumers have gone the other way during the pandemic, with less healthy eating habits and reduced fitness. However, much of the data tends to indicate that health is winning out overall.

To be clear, some consumers have gone the other way during the pandemic, with less healthy eating habits and reduced fitness. However, much of the data tends to indicate that health is winning out overall.

At this stage, retailers are likely wondering if new consumer habits will last. I put this question to Jane Dummer, a registered dietitian and food and retail industry consultant. 

“For at least the next year, there will be heightened consumer awareness and concern,” she said. “People will be looking at how to maintain health. Hopefully, people will look at nutrient-dense foods, portion sizes, fitness, sleep, hydration with water, and stress management, and talk to their health professionals about certain supplements like vitamin D.”

I like that Dummer didn’t attempt to project beyond the next year, which recognizes all the variables ahead, including development of a successful COVID-19 vaccine.

Retailers are certainly wondering how they can support enhanced consumer health goals. Krystal Register, the new director of health and well-being at FMI, said that food retailers have the opportunity to innovate in efforts “to help consumers looking for support with overall health.”

A lot of retailers are leveraging their dietitians to help engage with consumers, said Register, who was the longtime Wegmans Food Markets’ retail dietitian. “Shoppers are taking advantage of online touchpoints with enhanced health messaging and well-being tips, along with other helpful distinctive online features,” she said. Register cited such features as list-building tools, recipe links, nutrition trackers, planning grids, and labeling and ingredient information.

This input from nutrition experts is spot on and indicates to me that retailers have a special role to play. My take is that retailers don’t need to get into the weeds on exactly which products may advance health and immunity. Rather, they have the opportunity to provide choices, services and education to help consumers navigate their overall nutrition and lifestyle strategies.

Signs that retailers are stepping up include:

  • Kroger’s healthcare division, Kroger Health, rolled out a free telenutrition service to support new shopper eating routines during the pandemic. The program, led by Kroger dietitians, includes management of food-related health concerns. It is part of the company’s “Food as Medicine” platform; and 
  • Walgreens has moved to address growing concerns about mental health challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The retailer’s health outcomes pharmacists have completed the first phase of training in mental health first aid administered by the National Council for Behavioral Health. 

These types of services will interest consumers who are giving more weight to well-being strategies. Retail solutions may result in a double win by supporting consumer health goals and advancing shopper loyalty. 

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