We've all heard the forecasts that health marketing will be a gold mine for retailers as the population ages.
But things are rarely that simple.
Two new studies emerged this month that are sure to baffle even the most health-conscious consumers. They were conducted by The Women's Health Initiative of the National Institutes of Health and received major exposure in the general media. Each study involved women ages 50 to 79 and produced findings that seemed to overturn widespread beliefs. The first, whose results were unveiled early this month, found that low-fat diets did not provide protection against breast cancer, colon cancer, heart attacks and strokes. The second, released last week, concluded that calcium and vitamin D supplements did not play a notable role in preventing broken bones and colorectal cancer, and could even cause harm by producing kidney stones.
What does all of this mean for mainstream supermarket health marketing efforts? There was a time when supermarkets didn't have to worry about such things because they only sold the products of manufacturers. But today retailers have to be concerned. Growing private-label programs and store-as-a-brand efforts means retailers are taking more responsibility for what they sell and the total consumer experience.
So what should conventional retailers do? They need to educate their associates and customers about the reasons for shifts in nutritional advice. At a minimum, that means providing educational handouts or signage that addresses these topics. Even better would be having employees on hand with enough knowledge to speak to consumers about health issues, the kind of situation that would be expected in a natural products store (a story on Page 44 provides some additional details). Indeed, notes Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a consultant to natural food retailers, the natural channel "takes hits such as these all the time" and is accustomed to interpreting for consumers the conflicting flow of health news in the media.
Retailers and their supplier partners must help shoppers see gray rather than black and white. In the case of the low-fat study, for example, remind consumers that low fat probably has other benefits beyond those analyzed. Point out that knowledge of fats has moved beyond what was understood when the study was designed. Explain that the food industry can provide choices but doesn't have all the answers. That consumers need to read between the lines of news articles and take responsibility for their own knowledge and choices.
Also point out that each study gets us closer to the truth and helps keep us from bad choices. Dun Gifford, president and founder of the nonprofit food issues think-tank Olways Preservation Trust, contends that flawed understanding of medical advice was leading some consumers to cut out all fats, which is beyond where their bodies are supposed to go. His organization focuses on a more balanced nutritional approach through the Mediterranean diet.
Still, it's too bad that frustration returns as each successive study overturns conventional wisdom. Consumers could eventually blame the providers of products and the places where they are sold. Retailers and suppliers should do all they can to clear up confusion and position themselves as part of the solution.