Point of Purchase and Buying Behaviors

September 24, 2010

Identifying nutritious foods at checkout could lead to healthier shopping behaviors, according to a recent study from San José State University.

Identifying nutritious foods at checkout could lead to healthier shopping behaviors, according to a recent study from San José State University. The study, which looked at the purchasing behaviors of college students in the fall of 2008, found an increase in the percentage of items sold when those items were labeled with tags indicating their healthfulness.

For the study, an “Eat Smart” promotional poster was positioned in the front window of an on-campus convenience store, with more brochures about the Eat Smart program positioned next to the cash register. In addition, program tags labeled “Fuel Your Life” were placed on shelves throughout the store for particular items. Non-tagged foods were offered at the same prices as their tagged counterparts. After five weeks, researchers collected the corresponding sales data.

Researchers found that sales of tagged items increased in the cereal, soup and cracker categories. Overall, there was a 3.6% increase in the percentage of sales from tagged items. While not statistically significant, results still suggest that POP nutrition information may promote healthier food choices. Also, this study kept both tagged and non-tagged prices the same, thus eliminating the variable of price and further demonstrating the power of the nutritional message alone, rather than one driven by economics.

“There is evidence that price does influence purchasing decisions. One previous study showed that healthy vended items sold better when priced lower than unhealthy vended items. In this study, the costs of all foods in the same category were identical, showing that price was not a driver. By doing this, one can rule out choice based on cost. This is especially important in a student population when money is often an issue,” says Dr. Marjorie Freedman, one of the study co-authors.

More than 25% of college students – and 30% of adult Americans – are obese, increasing their risk for a whole list of health problems. Energy imbalance is the primary cause of weight gain, and many strategies for changing negative and unhealthy behaviors are being discussed in the fight again obesity. An environmental approach to healthful eating, like POP messaging, is one such strategy. 

“Environmental approaches reach more people than individual approaches,” says Freedman. “They can work to change ‘social norms.’ They are less labor intensive and have a much broader reach. They eliminate feelings of ‘guilt’ and ‘individual responsibility.’ Most believe that we must change the environment in order to adequately address the obesity crisis.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are currently focusing on these types of environmental approaches. NIH is supporting two research programs (to the tune of $72.5 million) designed to study the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity. In one aspect of the program, researchers will review long-term approaches to anti-obesity efforts used in home, community and primary care settings.

Meanwhile, many stores have already adopted one of four different shelf-tag POP initiatives currently available. Guiding Stars (Hannaford stores in the Northeast) assigns stars to food items to identify higher nutritional value. The NuVal Nutritional Scoring System (stores in the Northeast and Midwest) calculates an algorithm based on 30 nutrients. Nutrition iQ shelf tags (used in Acme, Cub and Albertsons stores) uses color coded tags to identify nutrients. And finally, the Healthy Ideas program (Stop&Shop stores in the Northeast) assigns a “healthy ideas” tag to healthy foods. Studies on the effectiveness of these programs have been limited, though.

More research is needed on POP messaging, says researchers, to help lend scientific support to public health policies engaging these programs. Freedman suggests that retailers do their part by posting POP nutrition information like logos and signage, and by lowering the prices of healthy options.

This article is from the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science which publishes Monday, September 27th. For your FREE subscription click here.