It’s easy to point fingers at parents or food manufacturers for the growing childhood obesity epidemic. Obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rather than place blame, Nancy Childs, PhD, professor of food marketing and Gerald E. Peck Fellow at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, chose to focus on what can be done at the retail level. Her study, “In-store Marketing to Children: U.S. Food Retailer Practices Abating Childhood Obesity,” highlights how retailers uniquely can make a difference.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Why did your research focus on retail?
Nancy Childs: I thought the retailer’s role was under the radar. People make purchasing decisions at the grocery store, yet the anti-obesity effort has been directed at manufacturers. There’s so much going on at the retail level—both good and bad. Rather than pointing out where stores go wrong, my research focuses on what retailers can do to help shoppers make better choices. I think reaching people where they buy food can have the greatest impact as far as messaging and education go.
NFM: How can retailers address obesity?
NC: Retailers can play a much larger role than they currently do. There are various ways to go about this, but one of the biggest is to look at how products are merchandised and just how they engage kids. For example, unhealthy treats placed near the checkout are a big draw for kids. This is no surprise because they sit at a child’s eye level and are usually very colorful and easy to grab. I’d love to see healthier offerings here, although when it comes to big-box stores, I think we have a long road ahead. These products often sell well, so finding healthier options that are just as competitive is a challenge.
NFM: You also looked at stores in the U.K. Are the brits ahead of us?
NC: Yes, partially because they have a much more concentrated retail market. To differentiate themselves, a lot of stores offer private-label products, and many have developed healthier children’s options. The U.K. also has a stricter regulatory environment, and there are restrictions on how manufacturers can advertise to kids—the kinds of restrictions not likely to be implemented in the U.S.
NFM: What would you like to see happen in U.S. stores?
NC: The healthiest foods should get prime shelf positions. I’d also love to see shelf talkers encourage people to make healthier choices. Grocers have engaged wholeheartedly in nutrition tours and education, but I think there’s room to do more sampling. We’re starting to see some of this occur with more cooking classes for kids and in-store demonstrations. The idea is to enable parents to envision a healthier collection of products for their kids for different meal occasions and snacking needs.
NFM: Have you seen any positive changes since the study?
NC: We’re starting to see a lot of retailers creeping up that chain of suggestion—helping kids think about healthier snacks and choices, whether it’s classes geared specifically to youth or engaging in health on the family level. By the same token, manufacturers are beginning to offer more healthy choices to retailers. It’s a circle that’s connecting on both sides. That’s great news.
On my researcher’s dream list, I’d hope to follow up with some of these stores to see what changes they’ve made and what impact they’re having.