Food Market

Shelf Marketing, Food Waste, and Obesity

Shelf marketing is core competency for anyone who makes a career of selling food. It also has a potential relationship to food waste, food purchasing, and obesity that is largely overlooked or misunderstood. A recent study in PLOS ONE hints at a scientific basis for this relationship.

Charlotte Hardman and colleagues describe a series experiments they conducted to analyze the relationship between presenting consumers with a wide variety of food brands (pizza in this case) and food intake. They concluded that:

A high level of variability in pizza form was associated with compromised controls of food intake. Variability predicted both reduced compensation for calories in pizza as well as lower expected satiation.

For any marketer, this is hardly new. Giving consumers a wider variety of brands and innovative line extensions is a big part of what product managers do to drive more sales. A retailer knows that stocking a variety of brands that appeal to distinct consumer segments will help them push more food through their stores. Shelf marketing and merchandising experts base their careers on finding ways to stimulate more and more purchases — the result is sometimes pejoratively described as impulse purchases.

Behavioral scientists might describe such purchases as normal responses to an abundance of food cues.

The narrative that blames “Big Food” for the excess of obesity often misses this fundamental point. It sounds more sinister to describe (as the New York Times did in 2013) “the extraordinary science of addictive junk food.”

It just might be that the fundamental dynamic driving the ever-growing volume of food moving through U.S. retail channels has more to do with presenting consumers with ever more food cues, in more places, and with more variety. People take home more food. People eat more food. People waste more food.

Simply removing all of the types of foods that are presently judged to be unhealthy will not solve a problem of oversupply and an overabundance of food cues. Marketers will adapt and find ways to stimulate people to buy ever more varieties that conform to the perpetually changing ideal of “healthy food.” But over-consumption of healthy food is unhealthy.

What is needed is a more sustainable model for food marketing. One where food marketers enjoy growing profits by trading consumers up to higher quality food instead of selling greater and greater quantities. Such a model will not come solely from public health or government or industry. It will require collaboration and challenging experimentation. Some adversarial negotiations will be necessary. Some partnerships between private, public, and academic sectors will be necessary.

The problem is complex. Simplistic solutions will not work. Robust solutions are possible if we can reach beyond simplistic models for this complex problem.

Click here to read Hardman’s study and click here for more perspective on how in-store marketing works.

Food Market, photograph © Angelo Benedetto / flickr

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