Could mandatory fruit and veg sections near entrances be next?

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/zoramn
Getty/zoramn

Related tags: HFSS, Promotion

With the UK set to roll out restrictions on unhealthy food promotions in stores next year, fresh research claims healthier supermarket layouts, including fruit and vegetables placed near store entrances, improves customers’ food choices.

The UK government will restrict unhealthy food promotions in stores from October 2022. The legislation requires medium and large businesses, including those with 50 or more employees, to phase out multibuy promotions such as ‘buy one get one free’ or ‘3 for 2’ offers on HFSS products.

Categories impacted by the new rules are soft drinks, chocolate, confectionery, breakfast cereal, yoghurt, sweetened milk drinks, juices with added sugars, ice cream, morning goods, puddings and dairy desserts, and sweet biscuits.

The move forms part of the government’s strategy to tackle obesity and ‘get the nation fit and healthy’. The rules “will make supermarkets and other retailers places where the healthier choice is the easy choice for everyone and support people to lead healthier lives,”​ the government said.

But the legislation has faced criticism from the industry. IRI estimates that the changes place £1.1bn in sales at risk per year. “These new rules will lead to a huge change in how UK retailers will operate. I’ve heard it described as the most influence the government has on what we eat since post-war rationing,​”​ IRI Strategic Consultant Joe Harriman observed.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has further warned that that consumers will inevitably face higher food and drink prices if manufacturers are forced to absorb the cost of proposed Government policies during the next few years including the introduction of promotional restrictions on HFSS foods.

Snack companies like Kind – whose high nut contents in its bars means they are classified as an HFSS food – have also complained the rules unfairly hit them.

But new research from the University of Southampton conducted in partnership with national supermarket chain Iceland Foods shows that removing confectionery and other unhealthy products from checkouts and the end of nearby aisles and placing fruit and vegetables near store entrances prompts customers to make healthier food purchases.

The trial took place in a selection of Iceland stores in England and monitored store sales as well as the purchasing and dietary patterns of a sample of regular customers.

The results showed store-wide confectionery sales decreased and fruit and vegetable sales increased when non-food items and water were placed at checkouts and at the end of the opposite aisles, and an expanded fruit and vegetable section was repositioned near the store entrance. Beneficial effects were also observed for household fruit and vegetable purchasing and individual dietary quality.

“Our results showed that substantial improvements could be made to population diet through the adoption of a healthier store layout,”​ study lead Dr Christina Vogel, a Public Health Nutrition scientist at Southampton University’s MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, told FoodNavigator.

“Specifically, our research showed that removing confectionery and other unhealthy foods from checkouts and aisle-ends opposite led to approximately 1,500 fewer portions of confectionery being purchased in each store on a weekly basis. We also showed that almost 10,000 additional portions of fruit and vegetables were purchased in each store on a weekly basis when an expanded fresh fruit and vegetable section was placed near the store entrance rather than at the back of the store.”

At the household level, there was approximately 5% greater fruit and vegetable purchasing among households who shopped at stores with the healthier layout compared to those who shopped at store with more conventional layouts. Interestingly, the diets of women and their children also improved if they shopped at the healthier stores.

“Such improvements in dietary habits could make a valuable contribution to addressing poor diet as driver of obesity,” ​Vogel told us. “Our findings therefore provide evidence to support the UK governments incoming ban the placement of unhealthy foods at checkouts and other prominent locations in supermarkets such as aisle ends and store entrances.”

The study findings showed a ‘clear reduction in confectionery sales at the store level but there was no change in confectionery purchasing at the household level’. The researchers therefore speculate that the lack of change at the household level occurred because unhealthy food products, like confectionery, were located in several prominent locations around supermarkets.

“While confectionery was removed from checkouts in our study, the seasonal (e.g. Easter, Halloween) and standard confectionery was still positioned at the store entrance, aisle ends and/or in-aisle promotional baskets providing additional purchasing opportunities,” ​said Vogel. “Greater effects are likely to be seen with the incoming legislations which incorporates three prominent locations (all aisle-ends, checkouts and store entrances). What remains to be seen is how effects may or may not differ by family composition or level of affluence.”

Will these findings see government intervention extended?

In terms of extending the current plans for the incoming legislation, the results also suggest that government intervention could be enhanced if supermarkets were also required to place a fresh fruit and vegetable section near the store entrance.

“Although a fresh produce section is placed near the entrance in many large supermarkets this layout is not consistent across all supermarket types,” ​explained Vogel. “Our results should be viewed with some caution because limitations in the study design may over or underestimate the results.”

Vogel and her colleagues  are currently conducting a larger study that focuses solely on the impact an expanded fresh fruit and vegetable section near store entrances has on store, household and individual food choice and how these differ according to household affluence (view study protocol here​).

This research is more comprehensive than previous studies, she claimed, testing whether placement strategies can promote healthier food purchasing which have been limited in scope, for example including only a single location (i.e. checkouts) or placing healthy and unhealthy products together. This study went further, aiming to reduce customers exposure to calorie opportunities by placing non-food items at checkout and aisle-ends opposite and measuring effects on store sales, customer loyalty card purchasing patterns and the diets of more than one household member. 

“More research is needed to investigate the best non-food alternatives but it may be an avenue to extend the intended legislation in the future to further support families and individuals from making added unnecessary food purchases at the checkout,” ​said Vogel.    

Matt Downes, Head of Format Development at Iceland, added: “We have been pleased to support this long-term study and the evaluation of how product placement in supermarkets can affect the diets of our customers. We know that childhood obesity is a growing issue and the retail industry has its part to play in tackling this. We hope that the outcomes of the study provide insights for the wider retail industry and policy makers about the impact of store merchandising on purchasing decisions.”

Reference

Altering product placement to create a healthier layout in supermarkets: Outcomes on store sales, customer purchasing, and diet in a prospective matched controlled cluster study

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003729

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