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New findings spotlight long-running natural merchandising debate

New findings spotlight long-running natural merchandising debate

Long before gluten-free, paleo or non-GMO grabbed headlines, what was the biggest natural merchandising topic among food retailers?

It was this question: Should you integrate or segregate natural and organic products in the supermarket?

That discussion often led to lively debates with strong arguments on both sides. Some asserted that shoppers needed a separate area to quickly locate these products, while others contended the items would perform better if mixed within the traditional sets.

Now, as supermarkets embrace natural and organic more than ever, we’ve seen more retailers go the integration route.

SN’s latest research illuminates this. We polled retailers and wholesalers on this topic as part of our annual Whole Health Survey. Some 41% said they integrate natural and organic products with conventional items, which is a notable jump from 33% last year. This compares to 14.7% of retailers who are focusing on dedicated aisles or “store within a store” (interestingly, that percentage was slightly up from 11.9% the prior year).

SN Whole Health Survey chart.
SN Whole Health Survey chart.

Percentages are only part of the story. The topic attracted some passionate comments, especially from retailers and others favoring product integration.

“Dedicated ‘organic’ aisles do a mass disservice to organic products by not introducing the better alternatives in the store categories they are shelved in,” said one. “More consumers would buy them if they were integrated.”

Said another, there’s “no longer a need for two different sets. Consumers want good product — integrate them!!!”

A third asserted, “Organic has gone mainstream and shopability is increased when integrated.”

The momentum for integration isn’t brand new. During an SN educational session at the 2015 Natural Products Expo West event, retailers said consumers are increasingly wanting integration for ease of shopping and locating items.

So is the debate over? It’s certainly moved farther along, but things aren’t usually as simple as they appear.

Our data show a considerable portion of retailers are mixing strategies. This year 38.9% said they pursue both integrated and segregated approaches, although that was down quite a bit from 47.6% the prior year.

In practice, says consultant Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillanDoolittle, there are three different avenues prominent now.


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“A separate department works in the beginning of a trend when you want to specifically call attention to a new assortment, like Free From or Nut Free, etc.,” he said. “An integrated but separated approach works to maximize sales while still creating attention for a specific area,” he added, citing the example of a designated zone for organic produce or meat within the traditional set. Finally, “pure integration works best to maximize sales.”

Concluded Stern, “I think there is more momentum toward integration at this point, but there will always be a new trend coming along that requires additional focus.”

So if product segregation is old school, it still has a place. As with most things, it depends on the circumstances of the individual stores and customer bases involved. But be aware that integration is definitely becoming more prominent and ultimately may be what consumers expect from their shopping experiences.

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