The gluten-free category continues to grow at an astounding pace, with total sales approaching the $2 billion mark. According to data from Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS, sales in the top five categories of gluten-free foods increased between 22 percent and a whopping 49 percent last year in natural foods stores. Obviously, customers want GF options. But what's the most effective way to merchandise these products?
Know what sells
SPINS reports that the No. 1 GF growth category in natural foods stores last year was shelf-stable nondairy beverages, at 49 percent. Chips, pretzels and snacks (34.7 percent) were second; followed by bread and baked goods (26.2 percent); baking mixes, supplies and flour (22.6 percent); and frozen and refrigerated entrées, pizzas and convenience foods (22.3 percent).
Oftentimes, people diagnosed with gluten-related illnesses receive little information about gluten from doctors, so they turn to retailers for help. At Vitamin Cottage, a 33-store chain based in Lakewood, Colo., employees are not only educated about basic gluten facts, but the stores also offer free nutritional coaching, host GF health fairs each October for Celiac Awareness Month and provide shoppers with the Celiac Society's list of gluten-free products, available at celiacsociety.com.
Because Food and Drug Administration requirements for gluten-free labels are still pending, retailers who research and pass manufacturing standards along to customers have an advantage. "Be sure the manufacturer is adhering to the proposed FDA standard of 20 parts per million," says Michael Smulders, owner of Bakery on Main, a manufacturer based in Glastonbury, Conn. Retailers should also ask GF manufacturers if they test raw materials for gluten contamination.
Think outside the store
"Celiacs are a special constituency, and you need to reach out to them," Smulders says. "Host support groups and sponsor meetings, ask for feedback on products or host a gluten-free-cooking class." And cultivate contacts within the medical community. "Lots of nutritionists have visited our store, and then they recommend us to their customers," says Jean Gordon, co-owner of Simply Gluten Free, a GF retailer in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Follow the signs
A 2008 Bakery on Main survey of 1,600 GF shoppers showed that 72 percent prefer to have GF products in a single section. But Phil Lempert, founder of supermarketguru.com, cautions against this approach. "A special section is not as inviting," he says. "I'd love to see gluten-free cereals right next to the regular wheat cereals, so shoppers can compare."
At Vitamin Cottage, "we do signage by brand," says Executive Vice President Heather Isley. "Some manufacturers are entirely gluten free, but for others, we have a gluten-free section within the set." Lempert says it's OK to let GF package labels speak for themselves. "It's not so much what the store needs to do as what the individual products need to do."
Bulk and supplements
"To be honest, we don't recommend that celiacs shop in bulk sections," Smulders says. For someone who just wants to try a wheat-free diet, buying bulk rice or tapioca flour might be fine, but diagnosed celiacs need assurance that products contain no cross-contamination.
For supplements, there's no practical way to section off gluten-free products within each category or manufacturer's line. Smulders recommends providing customers with a list of GF supplements from the Celiac Society or manufacturers.