Digital tools such as social media and mobile apps play an increasingly important role in the food shopping experience, particularly for ingredient conscious consumers seeking products Free-From gluten and allergens.
Retailers and manufacturers have been leveraging this by making product information and recipes available via social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Retail dietitians in particular are also interacting with shoppers at a personal level in-store or through groups such as Twitter parties and webinars.
“There is mounting evidence that shoppers want to know more about the food they consume, and they’re turning to technology — for example, blogs, social media and mobile apps — for help,” said Sandy Skrovan, founder and research director of GlutenFreeRetailHQ.com.
Skrovan herself has been on a medically prescribed gluten-free diet since 2001. Based on her personal experience, she said she believes shoppers with food intolerances rely more heavily on social media and blogs than the average shopper.
“When you’re dealing with food allergies, due diligence must be conducted on products, ingredients and related manufacturing and processing practices or else serious health risks come into play,” she said. “Fortunately, there are a growing number of reliable and credible food information sources accessible these days via the Internet or smartphones that make grocery shopping and eating out more manageable for food allergy sufferers.”
Retailers say social media provides not only an avenue to disseminate information about products, but also a channel for two-way communication with consumers.
“Social media allows us to have a thoughtful dialog with our followers about various Free-From lifestyles, enables us to create a community of people who share similar interests, and it also helps us target audiences with specific interests,” said Robby Harrington, social media marketing manager at Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market.
Sprouts often shares Free-From content on social media, including recipes and product suggestions. It has developed some weekly features, including Meatless Mondays and Gluten-Free Fridays.
This past fall, the chain included several social media components in a gluten-free marketing campaign, including a Twitter party and a gluten-free Pinterest board where Sprouts and several of its supplier partners posted gluten-free recipes.
“On our various social channels, we aim to provide engaging, empowering and educational content in the form of recipes, videos, DIYs and tips relating to food and living a healthy lifestyle,” said Harrington.
In addition to posting social media content, Sprouts also hosts monthly Wellness Webinars with Sprouts nutritionist Janet Little, who has covered gluten-free topics.
The chain also has a page on its website dedicated to gluten-free education, and any Free-From content posted on the site is tagged to make it easy for customers to find.
At Asheville, N.C.-based Ingles Markets, dietitian Leah McGrath is very active on social media, where she often posts material about health and nutrition, including Free-From topics.
“Typically I interact and share information as @InglesDietitian, although sometimes new gluten-free items are mentioned,” she said.
Recently she shared with her 9,700-plus Twitter followers a Facebook post from a customer who raved about the gluten-free selection at a nearby Ingles.
In addition to social media, Ingles also maintains a list of of gluten-free products on its website and labels gluten-free items in its stores with shelf tags.
Pushing info out
Skrovan of Gluten Free Retail HQ notes that retailers and manufacturers have an opportunity to “push” relevant information out to consumers via social media.
“Gluten-free shoppers and other food allergy sufferers are hungry for information,” she said. “They want and appreciate accurate and candid answers about products, especially when their health is involved. Anything retailers and brand marketers can do to increase product transparency and provide more allergen information is welcome.”
Skrovan also noted that the real-time aspect of social media is important for consumers seeking information about allergens during the shopping experience, and it is also important for retailers and suppliers to bear in mind. A consumer might share a negative experience on social media that could be picked up in an instant by thousands of other customers.
“Shoppers with celiac disease, gluten sensitivities and other food allergies are extremely engaged via digital and social means,” she said. “Consumer sharing of information – whether product safety issues, product recalls, or sharing stories about allergic reactions – happens at the speed of light.”
“Both good and bad news spreads quickly amongst the allergen-free communities. Retailers and brand marketers obviously want to end up on the good side of the equation – so being proactive and forthcoming about product information and news through social media is paramount.”