Natural Foods Merchandiser

How to guide customers to allergen-free products

Grocery shopping for an allergy sufferer can be daunting. Although the Food and Drug Administration now requires that product labels clearly identify the eight most common food allergens, reading though long ingredient lists can bring back memories of high school chemistry class.

“My first trip to the grocery store after the diagnosis took me almost three hours,” says Jamie Martin in her blog on Her daughter struggles with a dairy allergy, so she had a tough time reading every single ingredient just to make sure her daughter wouldn’t have a terrible reaction. “By the time I left the grocery store that afternoon, I was on the verge of tears. My entire adult life, I had taken for granted the convenience of being able to go to the store and pull anything off the shelf that looked good and buy it. Once you or a loved one is diagnosed with food allergies, this is a convenience you will never be able to indulge again.”

Martin’s struggle doesn’t have to be the norm, especially at natural products stores. Retailers can make shopping easy for allergy sufferers by providing simple store signage and clever cross promotion, and by taking advantage of new technologies.

Simple signage
“The best thing retailers can do is make it as easy as possible by labeling things,” says Stephen Wangen, MD, author of Healthier Without Wheat (Innate Health Publishing, 2009). “The more obvious labeling there is, the easier. Packaging isn’t always crystal clear. Every package is different. If the store has a standard and uses it throughout the store, people love that. It makes it so much easier.”

Busy retailers can get help from companies that can overhaul your store to include helpful shelf talkers, labels, and signage specific to the eight major allergens (fish, milk, wheat, peanuts, treenuts, shellfish, eggs and soy). Vestcom’s Healthy Aisles, a comprehensive marketing program for stores, uses a database of 100,000 items to create shelf tags to clearly label different product attributes, including low -sodium, heart -healthy and of course, allergy-free.

“[The labels] are an improvement for shoppers because it gives them brand loyalty which gives the store shopper loyalty,” says Jeff Weidauer, vice president of marketing at Little Rock, Ark. -based Vestcom.

Putting it all together
Many stores already do a good job of cross merchandising allergy-free products in special sections; however, grouping dairy-free yogurts and gluten-free cereals in one aisle may not be physically possible.

In NFM's September issue’s special section on the gluten free trend, we reported that a 2008 Bakery on Main survey of 1,600 GF shoppers showed that 72 percent prefer to have GF products in a single section. Others would rather see conventional items like cereals placed next to gluten-free varieties.

”We do signage by brand," says Heather Isley, executive vice president of the Vitamin Cottage natural foods store chain. "Some manufacturers are entirely gluten free, but for others, we have a gluten-free section within the [brand] set."

Getting techie
We explored the balance between traditional marketing and new generation technological promotion in our November issue, finding that a bit of both is the best way to go. For allergy-free products, however, new technologies are becoming popular.

An increasing number of comapnies are launching mobile device applications to help allergy sufferers. For example, the "Is That Gluten Free?" iPhone application lists safe and unsafe products. British based supermarket chain Tesco just launched an app that allows people to search for any product—with or without allergens—and then find the nearest store that stocks it.

Retailers can set up an allergy-specific Twitter feed that alerts customers to deals or new allergen-free products. You can also implement an in-store computer system to find allergy-free products, similar to an online library catalog. Or you could set up a a page on your website that has new allergy-free research, what your store is doing for allergy sufferers and what’s hot this week. There are endless ways you can make your store a virtual allergy expert.

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