Supermarket Wellness Watch: Health-focused upstarts shake up food retail

Food industry disruption is being accelerated by innovative, upstart consumer goods companies focused on attributes including health and wellness.

That’s a takeaway from a first-time Consumer Goods Innovators Index produced by consultancy Oliver Wyman. The index provides insights into which types of companies are truly disrupting. Moreover, in an interview, Oliver Wyman partners addressed how traditional food retailers are impacted, and how they can adjust to these challenges.

The consultancy pursued a rigorous process to identify the most innovative disruptors in a number of industry sub-vertical sectors, including food and beverage. The organization considered more than 86,000 retail and consumer goods companies across sectors, analyzing aspects including depth of innovation and disruption. It turns out many of the most disruptive food and beverage companies identified were those marketing attributes that included health and wellness.

Here’s a link to the roster of index companies. Because Oliver Wyman studied a number of different sectors, you’ll need to use the food and beverage drop-down box to look at that segment.

So which companies appear in the food and beverage index? They aren’t necessarily household names. Some focus on plant-based products, such as Beyond Meat and Califia Farms. A number pursue subscription and/or delivery models, among them Freshly, “a weekly, delivery subscription service of healthy, all-natural, fully prepared meals.” Some include a sustainability message, such as Green Chef, which presents “organic meal kits in a carbon-neutral package.” A few target specific day parts, such as NatureBox, which aims to reshape the snack foods space with online items that have natural ingredients and minimal preservatives.

There’s a reason why many of these upstart players pursue wellness attributes in the food sector.

“When consumers look for products in which health-and-wellness is a key attribute, they are typically willing to experiment with new brands and products.” Said Jeremy Sporn, an Oliver Wyman partner who focuses on food and other retail and consumer goods in North America.

“Upstarts focus on areas where they can be competitively advantaged by filling needs,” Sporn said. “They don’t go after saturated parts of the market unless they can have unique positioning.”

Traditional retailers need to consider how to respond to new directions outlined in the index. Many retailers have made significant investments in delivering successful health-and-wellness products and services to their customer bases in recent years. Despite these advances, the retailers aren’t necessarily on the leading edge of innovation and disruption, as represented by the companies in the Oliver Wyman index.

Retailers can attempt to partner with upstart companies, to the extent it’s feasible. However, some of these newer players, such as many subscription-based services, are going it alone and pursuing models outside of traditional retail.

Given this, retailers can try to identify other partners or develop similar capabilities on their own, including by differentiating through private brand efforts. Though Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons took the acquisition route, bringing meal kit company Plated on as a subsidiary in September 2017, Kroger, for its part, has developed its Prep+Pared Meal Kits and launched them in four of its divisions.

“Supermarkets should have the right to win in areas like subscription and delivery,” Sporn said.

This tends to be complicated, however, because it represents a new kind of challenge for retailers.

“It’s hard for retailers to find a lot of these niche products,” said Fred Thomas-Dupuis, a partner on Oliver Wyman’s retail and consumer goods team who does a lot of work with global retailers. “Retailer category management organizations are extremely busy with all the things you’d expect them to be doing around areas like pricing and promotions. They have big vendors calling on them, and they don’t have a lot of time to spend with some of the smaller, innovative, and more disruptive vendors.”

Added Sporn, “It requires a big organizational shift. Retailers were traditionally a distribution channel for manufacturers, but this would involve a different type of business. Do they have the organization to do this, and can they pivot quickly enough to a new consumer-driven model?”

Food retailers need to further develop certain capabilities in taking on this challenge. One of the biggest is the ability to develop insights into their own consumer bases and to personalize for shoppers, such as customizing around healthy diets, Sporn observed.

“Food retailers should be good at consumer engagement,” Sporn said. “They’ve got the consumer, so how do you innovate around that? It might be with unique products that only your local store would know is right for your family.”

It could involve curating items for a specific customer base, possibly even by including some of the very items from companies in the index.

“You could imagine a world in which a food retailer builds an innovation hub and identifies brands and products they can uniquely curate and offer to consumers,” Sporn said.

The answers will be different for each retailer. The innovators index is a useful tool, in my opinion, not because it’s a perfect roster of the ‘best’ or most innovative consumer goods companies, but rather because it points to key patterns of disruption, including in wellness, and stimulates a discussion about how established players can respond.

David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker who was the longtime chief editor and content leader of Supermarket News. He is currently the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s blog post, click here