How to embrace your food stamp customers

February 20, 2012

Food stamp recipients grew 58 percent from 2008 to 2011. Here are some ideas on how to capture this large segment of shoppers.

Food stamps are a hot topic for political debate this election year with many questions being raised about solutions to reduce the amount of Americans on food assistance, which is at an all time high. But for supermarkets, the priority lies in capturing those customers on food stamps, for as to ignore them would mean losing out on gaining the business of a large segment.

Recently, the Associated Press reported that federal statistics show the annual average of food stamp recipients grew 58 percent from 2008 to 2011. And according to Bloomberg, 85 percent of all food stamps were spent at large grocery stores and supercenters in 2010 with the Save-A-Lot chain claiming food stamps account for about 40 percent of their sales.

Some retailers have made efforts to cater to these customers by opening at midnight, the time when benefits are loaded onto food stamp cards, and by promoting higher priced bulk items earlier in the month and smaller sizes later in the month, reports Bloomberg. However, The Lempert Report feels there is opportunity for supermarkets to do more by respectfully embracing these customers and their needs and developing loyalty and trust.

1.  Make resources available, but respect privacy. Food stamp customers may find themselves in embarrassing circumstances, particularly those new to the program that may have never imagined themselves receiving food assistance. Although the guidelines are not complicated as to what food stamp customers can purchase, some may find it helpful if a supermarket nutritionist could offer up a weekly suggestion/tip on how to make your food stamps go farther and feed your family on healthier, fresh foods. These suggestions could be made available on the store’s website or in circulars, so customers can maintain privacy.

2.  They can’t buy hot, prepared foods, but they can buy the ingredients. The food stamp program does not allow participants to purchase those tempting, hot, conveniently prepared foods located in the store’s deli. However, stores could easily make available recipes and ingredient lists for those who want to make them at home. Featuring one recipe each week,could make this fun and less overwhelming.

3.  Color-coded promotions. Retailers may find benefit in placing items on sale for food stamp users that can be recognized with color-coded shelf tags. And perhaps the sale items are sometimes pricier foods that most customers on food assistance would never consider purchasing. Remember, some of these customers are accustomed to living on higher incomes and have more sophisticated tastes. Showing respect for their tastes and helping them afford to let’s say, eat wild salmon once in a while, will support a lasting relationship with this customer, even when they are no longer receiving food assistance.

4.  Help parents put their children first. It’s no secret that obesity is an epidemic with the youth of America, and while some believe food stamps should not apply to “junk foods,” there is controversy on whether or not policing purchases is the right approach. But as a retailer, you have the ability to reach these customers directly and on a more personal, compassionate ground. Find ways to reach out to parents on food assistance, and teach and encourage them how to shop with food stamps for their children. How can they make healthier meals that will appeal to the whole family? How can they include more fresh foods, and when can they trust that the same nutrients are in less expensive, canned or frozen foods and vegetables? The store’s nutritionist could lead these efforts through the store’s website or even by offering private consultation.

5.  Reducing food waste. Often times, consumers are confused by freeze by dates, and recently a supermarket chain in the UK, backed by the government is leading an initiative to reduce food waste by helping shoppers understand that some foods can be frozen up to the use by date instead of freezing on the day of purchase.  American supermarkets can take the same initiative by offering food safety/freezing tips to customers.

As human beings, it saddens us to see so many people in our communities struggling to feed their families. And no matter what the circumstances that have left these people in dire straits, it is not beneficial to ignore them. They are your customers, and the goal is that they will be your customers on food stamps or not. They will appreciate your empathy, and you will build long-term relationships with your shoppers.