KANSAS CITY - A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are increasingly aware of the impact on health, wellness and the environment that the items in their grocery cart have, and retailers have a significant opportunity to help shoppers fill their carts with the items that fit their needs and preferences.

“The pandemic highlighted the philosophy of food and medicine and consumers have been paying more attention to healthy eating,” said Shelley Balanko, senior vice president of Bellevue, Wash.-based research and analysis firm The Hartman Group. ”It’s a trend that really got accelerated because consumers were interested pre-pandemic in personalized wellness, eating for specific goals and needs. But with the onset of the pandemic that focus on personalized wellness has shifted focus to personalized immunity and eating for immunity.”

Balanko noted that in the last year there has been heightened interest in traditional ingredients that support immunity such as garlic, green tea, ginger, turmeric citrus and adaptogenic mushrooms.

While consumer interest in health-based items has been on the rise, shoppers have also pivoted their shopping habits. Many consumers have switched to shopping online, and those who still shop brick-and-mortar have a get-in-get-out mindset.

 With many customers exploring new eating preferences amid the pandemic, grocers have a special opportunity to help consumers quickly find the right products for their health and wellness needs — whether it’s quick and easy-to-read signage instore or an expansion of healthy product information and tips online.

“With social media it’s easy for a retail dietician to share some quick-hand information about what foods help build immunity and how to eat healthier,” pointed out Phil Lempert, the founder and chief executive officer of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Retail Dietitians Business Alliance. “It’s about a combination of what you can use instore that’s really simple and won’t slow the shopper down, and what you can do outside the store to build that relationship with the shopper and empower that information.”

Navigating through nutritional preferences to reach consumers

Between different eating styles such as vegan, keto and paleo, ingredient restrictions and functionality goals, shoppers have individual health needs that can be very different from one customer to another.

Instead of attempting to separate foods by various diet plans, Lempert recommends that retailers take a wholistic approach to health and wellness.

“The average person has 3.2 different preferences when it comes to diets. It could be an allergy to being gluten free, it could be keto, and so on,” said Lempert. “So, it’s getting more complicated, not simpler. The world is changing around us and we have to have our retailers step up.”

Balanko said to reach a holistic understanding, retailers should act as a guide that can help consumers understand which products they can reap benefits from by highlighting a product’s central attributes.

“Let the consumer interpret why they are buying certain products on their own,” she said. “You can demonstrate the nutrition and still let the consumer decide why they’re choosing a product, whether it’s physical health or it’s for their mental wellbeing. Connect with consumers’ emerging knowledge around a variety of food and beverage ingredients that will support their overall resilience.”

By focusing on product attributes like ‘sugar-free,’ ‘plant-based,’ ‘natural,’ ‘sustainably produced,’ etc., retailers can help shoppers know which products match their preferences.

“Many nutritional philosophies have some common attributes. By focusing on those a consumer can decide, ‘Oh, okay, that fits with my interest in keto or Whole 30’ — the same product can fit two philosophies,” Balanko said.

With online shopping, it’s even easier. Retailers can build their websites to allow consumers to filter out products that meet their exact eating preferences.

In fact, Chicago-based Sifter SP recently launched sifter.shop, a free online service that allows shoppers to create a personalized diet profile and search for products that meet their preferences.

Once a user has selected products and are ready to purchase, Sifter drops items into the online cart of a growing list of retail partners including Walmart, Amazon, Stop & Shop and Giant. Or customers can use the list compiled by Sifter to shop instore at their local grocer. 

Sifter has over 100 dietary filters, called SiftTags, that are grouped into five categories including allergens & concerns, health diets, lifestyle diets, medications and responsible practices.

Natural Grocers’ multi-pronged approach to nutrition

Lakewood, Colo.-based Natural Grocers has learned that consumers are best reached through multiple approaches that help build a connection between the shopper and the retailer.

“Our Nutrition Education Department and our marketing team collaborate every day to make sure our nutritional marketing campaigns are seamless and accurate – this is key to earning the trust of our communities,” said Raquel Isely, Natural Grocer’s vice president of marketing. “We also know that different people have different ways of digesting information, so we take a multi-pronged approach to our nutritional marketing so that there is something for everyone.”

Instore the retailer adds tags that clearly call out product attributes like “Keto Friendly” or  “Gluten Free.” Signage can be found all over the store that explores the benefits and responsibility practices associated with a product. Natural Grocers has also utilized QR codes that allow shoppers to read more in-depth details about products they’re interested in.

“Consumers are increasingly interested in product ingredients and the impact ingredients have on their health and the health of the environment,” said Karen Falbo, Natural Grocers’ director of nutritional education. “They want to be reassured the products they use (i.e., foods, body care, supplements and household cleaning products) contain healthy, clean and sustainable ingredients.”

Natural Grocers does several things to reach customers outside the store, too:

  • Natural Grocers’ Health Hotline magazine can be delivered directly to shopper’s houses and includes in-depth health and wellness articles, recipes, and details about nutritional programs and deals in-store.
  • The retailer also hosts regular guest presenter classes on various nutritional topics, including how to follow specific nutrition plans. For now, the events are virtual, but the retailer hopes to bring the classes to in-person when it is safe.
  • The good4u Meal Deal program helps reward members receive discounts on ingredients for healthy meal recipes they can make for their families at home. The retailer regularly adds new Meal Deals to the program to mix it up a little such as burgers for summer grilling or brunch for an Easter celebration. 
  • Natural Grocers’ Nutritional Health Coaches offer customers individual one-on-one coaching sessions to help customers achieve their health goals.
  • An extensive online recipe library helps customers sort by a variety of eating preferences.

“Natural Grocers was built on the belief that a healthy and balanced lifestyle should be accessible for everyone, so on top of our Always Affordable pricing and {N}power special, we’ve also made the decision that all of our Nutrition Education programs are completely free,” said Isely. “We consider how we can connect with our consumers, what they need from us to be successful in their health and wellness journeys and how we can best meet those needs.”