Retailers as educators are a sign of the times we live in.Numerous food-related concerns have sparked concerted efforts by consumers to learn as much as possible about issues ranging from mad cow disease to controlling carbohydrates. In turn, many retailers have expanded their role as informant, reaching out to consumers in the aisles as they shop.Retailers and industry experts agree that the best

Retailers as educators are a sign of the times we live in.

Numerous food-related concerns have sparked concerted efforts by consumers to learn as much as possible about issues ranging from mad cow disease to controlling carbohydrates. In turn, many retailers have expanded their role as informant, reaching out to consumers in the aisles as they shop.

Retailers and industry experts agree that the best place to affix any type of informational message is directly on a product's package. The idea has limitations, however.

"That's pretty hard to do from a practical standpoint. We can't just go around putting stickers on all the bottles and boxes and jars and stuff," said J.B. Pratt, chief executive officer of Pratt Foods Supermarkets, Shawnee, Okla.

More operators like Pratt are placing information, in a variety of guises, as close to Center Store products as possible.

Norwalk, Conn.-based Stew Leonard's posts reprints of news articles on-shelf with the product. For example, the retailer laminated a feature story from Bon Appetit magazine on the gourmet peanut butter products from Peanut Butter & Co. and displays the story near the jars, according to Meghan Flynn, spokeswoman.

"We like to carry products that have a story behind them," she said. "It lends credibility and creates excitement in the store."

The retailer, which has its own in-house graphics and visual departments, also places photos around the store of Stew Leonard Jr. meeting with ranchers, lobstermen and dairy farmers to "show our customers that we have a direct relationship with our suppliers, and can therefore bring in the best-quality products and the best prices because there is no middleman involved," said Flynn.

Showing consumers that their well-being is top of mind is perhaps the most important piece of information a supermarket can convey, said Mark Michelson, president and CEO of Michelson & Associates Inc., a research firm based in Atlanta.

"A lot of customers feel alienated in their store environments," said Michelson. "It used to be that you knew someone, and someone knew you. Today, it's pretty much, 'Help yourself. Do your own thing.' Any kind of signage that indicates 'We care about you. If you don't find what you're looking for, ask us. This is good for you; we stand behind it. Take care of yourself' -- that kind of stuff has a big impact," he said.

While retailers are not necessarily standing behind low-carb dieting, they have responded to consumer demand for information in a number of ways.

"When low-carbohydrate diets and foods began soaring in popularity, we created signage in-store to let our customers know which products we sold fit into a carb lifestyle, and we even began baking our own brand of low-carb breads and cookies and preparing low-carb items on our takeout hot bar," said Flynn of Stew Leonard's.

Others designed chain-specific symbols to identify products that fit into the low-carb classifications. Wild Oats is using the logo "Counting Carbs the Natural Way," while Hannaford Bros. uses the tagline "Carbconscious" on signs, shelf-talkers and informational brochures.

At Thrifty Foods, Victoria, Canada, "We use signage for communication for virtually everything," said Susan Postma, spokeswoman for the 17-store chain. Thrifty also has an additional store on the mainland. "It's an excellent communication tool for our customers, and if we can't be there to help them face to face, then we try our best to help provide them information at least on signage."

The retailer leaves the approach to signs up to the individual store managers, and the look of displays can range from hand-written posters to 4x6-foot banners to aisle invaders, which are merchandising tools clipped onto shelves and highly visible as a shopper looks down an aisle.

Here, too, newspaper articles have helped get a message across.

"A company that we work with farms salmon inland. We got a lot of press about that when it first came out because it was the first in Canada. So, we put up a laminated version of the article in the meat area and seafood area," Postma said.

According to Michelson, the three best locations for communicating with consumers are on the product packaging, on promotional endcaps, and in-store within store borders. The last "has the highest degree of investment and the highest exposure," and is best located near the produce department that "already has the halo of health," he said.

At Pratt Foods, where healthy foods are the main focus, every nook and cranny of the footprint presents the retailer with the opportunity to help educate shoppers.

"We try to keep it real simple, and we use this whole health concept. So, we have these little cards that have the whole health wheel and the basic benefit of each category like fiber and filtered water and non-dairy," Pratt told SN.

Like Stew Leonard's, Pratt Foods displays published articles on the shelves, like a story that espouses the belief that people who eat whole grains have fewer heart attacks.

"We've always had a lot of questions [from shoppers]," he said, noting that soy is currently piquing the interest of his consumers and has recently been a topic of discussion in a column in the local newspaper, which the retailer contributes to on a weekly basis.

"Soy continues to be the great unfound opportunity for most retailers and consumers. When we run articles about soy, [people] want to know more about where to find soy foods and a lot of the dry cereals have got soy in them now. You can find soy beans in frozen foods, soy nuts and even shelf-stable soy milk."

To that end, Pratt's stores feature spinner racks that carry 8 1/2x11-inch fact sheets on soy from the Soy Foods Association of America, Washington, which the chain has displayed for many years.

According to Pratt, the pamphlets include basic information on foods like tofu, analogs and soy oils, which he said can be associated with a good weight-loss, healthy lifestyle program.

However, consumers aren't just looking for instruction on healthful food alternatives. Some may need help just fitting any type of meal into their hectic schedules.

Earlier this month, Giant Food, Landover, Md., instituted a meal solutions program called "5 in 30," which provides consumers with recipes that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less using no more than five ingredients. A different recipe will be featured every month on the cover of the retailer's in-store circular, and recipe cards are being displayed throughout all Giant and Super G units. Linguine with Shrimp Tuscan Style was the first recipe promoted through the new program.

In addition to the recipes, the cards will also suggest side dishes, desserts and the proper wine to complement the meal.

"Anytime a store can make a personal connection or offer some sort of assistance to customers, either by grouping products together and signing them or by identifying specific products in the store that are healthy, I think they are doing a great service for customers," Michelson said.

Message on a Bottle

Getting a message across to consumers isn't just a retailer's game. In fact, it's what can make or break a consumer packaged goods marketing campaign. Yet, knowing where to put messages is often at issue.

Point-of-Purchase Advertising International, Washington, a global nonprofit trade association covering the advertising and marketing industry at retail, found that 49% of POP advertising at the shelf was effective in boosting sales, while 41% of POP materials placed in secondary locations helped lift sales.

Also in its "In-Store Advertising Becomes a Measured Medium: Supermarket Study," which used some 250 supermarkets from 22 major domestic markets as its base, POPAI indicates that the product categories of beer, laundry and hair care were most helped by POP advertising on the main shelf, while dog food sales jumped most when product displays were used. Cereal was the category with the least amount of in-store POP advertising materials; those observed were found not to be effective in helping to increase sales (see chart).

"What we discovered in this very comprehensive national research is that between 70% and 74% of buying decisions happened in the store on impulse. Signage and placement play a huge factor in that and [that] varies by category of product, varies by domestic or foreign, and varies by channel. It's different in supermarkets and convenience stores," said Joyce Winslow, POPAI's vice president of corporate communications.

% of Brands With a Sales Lift (>+1%) When Using P-O-P Materials

Total Study: Beer; Cereal; Dog Food; Hair Care; Laundry

Main Shelf P-O-P: 49; 68; 23; 54; 70; 67

Display P-O-P: 41; 59; 7; 67; 40; 67

Source: "P-O-P Measures Up"; Point-Of-Purchase Advertising Institute