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Shelf label test brings 'healthy' sales.

In 1981, Giant Food Inc. and the Food and Drug Administration teamed up on a unique nutrition information experiment called Special Diet Alert (SDA). Using FDA-approved definitions, Giant selected 400 products deemed "low calorie," "low sodium" and "low fat/cholesterol" and gave these items special shelf markers. The store then tracked sales of the tagged foods and their "normal" counterparts (1,600 items in all) for two years to determine the impact the shelf labels had on sales.

What does this portend for future in-store nutrition programs? Progressive Grocer discussed the potential benefits and problems of the program with Alan S. Levy, senior staff analyst in FDA's Division of Consumer Studies.

PG: Mr. Levy, why are the SDA results important to FDA and the supermarket industry?

LEVY: First, we now have a program that actually works. By putting permanent shelf labels on products deemed low in sodium, calories, or fats and cholesterol, Giant increased the sales of these foods. This is the first time that an in-store nutrition program has actually changed consumer behavior.

Second, and equally important, is the fact that we know it worked. It's virtually impossible to gauge the impact of the classic supermarket nutrition education programs, which are usually characterized by posters and handouts, but after tracking sales of SDA-flagged products for two years, Giant provided us with three million data measurements--enough to construct a good sales model.

Third, and perhaps most important to retailers, is the fact that Giant's experience has allowed FDA to develop "dos and don'ts" for future labeling efforts. We now have a prototype program that preliminary results show is successful, and we're beginning to understand why other approaches may not work.

PG: How did the tags affects sales?

LEVY: We compared product sales in Washington, D.C., stores, which used the shelf labels, to sales in Baltimore control stores. Over the two-year evaluation period, sales in Washington increased on the average of 4% to 8% more than in Baltimore. Sales of canned fish, margarine, mayonnaise, cottage cheese, fruit juice, frozen vegetables, soft drinks and tomato sauce increased significantly.

We thought the tags would be most effective on low-sodium products, but they worked well across the board. This tells us the response is not just a "trendy" thing.

Interestingly, low-calorie labeling had a greater impact on products not generally associated with dieting. The tags made products such as frozen vegetables more distinctive, while they had no effect on skim milk or diet soft drinks. Apparently the shelf salience of these foods is as high as it will get.

PG: What was the key to SDA's success?

LEVY: The use of shelf tags to deliver information to shoppers at the point of purchase rather than reliance on section posters and detailed educational pamphlets. Traditional in-store nutrition education programs involving signs and handouts sometimes raise awareness of certain health issues and nutrition, but as a rule they do not change purchasing behavior in desired ways, particularly long-term purchasing behavior.

Supermarkets are places to buy things, not to browse. Trying to educate shoppers in this information-dense environment imposes extra work on them. It makes them read and comprehend posters and handouts, and then search for specific products. Conversely, SDA imposes no new tasks and makes minimal demands on the shopper's ability and willingness to process new information.

PG: Does this mean retailers should abandon the "classic" poster-handouts approach?

LEVY: I wouldn't tell them not to try such nutrition education programs. But I'd urge them to do something in addition, like flagging products on the shelf.

PG: You mentioned that your enthusiasm for this prototype is tempered by some concerns. What worries you about other stores embracing shelf tagging?

LEVY: We're giving retailers a degree of freedom to play with labeling that they've never had before and we see a lot of opportunity for abuse. We hope stores will copy Giant's approach or discuss deviations with us before going ahead.

Our chief concern is that these programs be consistent. We must maintain the integrity of the food label. For example, we'd like "low sodium" or "low fat" to mean the same in every store.

PG: What's your advice to a retailer who's interested in launching a nutrition information programs?

LEVY: Keep it simple, consistent and constant. Highlight food components typically avoided for the sake of better health (such as fats or sodium) rather than those recommended in greater amounts, such as vitamins or complex carbonydrates.

Don't slap labels on everything, or you won't be able to determine what's happening.

Make any shelf tag program a long-term one. SDA succeeded in part because it's permanent. Shoppers need time to learn to use the flags as shopping tools.

And finally, adhere strictly to FDA's sodium and calorie labeling requirements, and follow Giant's lead or contact us regarding labels.
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Author:Densford, Lynn E.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Article Type:column
Date:Nov 1, 1984
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