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With new app, Kroger nudges consumers toward healthier purchases

The data-driven app will allow Kroger's 9 million customers per day to make healthier decisions on a product by product basis.

Research shows that small, gentle nudges are the best way to encourage people to make systemic shifts in their eating patterns. Want to encourage members of your office—as Google did in their employee cafeterias—to eat more fruit and less candy? Put the M&Ms in an opaque container and place a basket of fresh fruit on the counter. Want to inspire people to eat nutrient-dense but unpopular vegetables? Highlight them with a “Vegetable Of The Day!” poster in a high-traffic area—a tactic that encouraged 64 percent of Google employees to serve themselves the dish.

“A nudge,” writes authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University, 2008), “Is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

Kroger, which with 2,800 locations is the largest grocer in the United States, recently launched a new app called OptUP that harnesses the power of nudging to encourage shoppers to make healthier purchasing decisions at the grocery store.

“Over the last few years we’ve been noticing this customer need to better understand on a very simple level what is healthy, and how to make slight improvements towards better eating with what’s going into the cart,” says Allison Kuhn, RD, Kroger’s director of nutrition. “We’ve worked with our data scientists, our dieticians and our healthcare professionals to really come out with an app that’s starting to deliver on that need.”

Dubbed as “Your Mobile Assistant to Healthier Shopping,” OptUP ranks every item available at Kroger’s locations (many of which are under a variety of banner names including Fred Meyer, King Soopers, Mariano’s and more)—from Honeycrisp apples to Triscuit crackers to the store’s private label brand Simple Truth—with a nutritional score from 1 to 100 and a green, yellow or red color distinction.

The score is determined by analyzing 100 grams of a product’s basic nutritional qualities. Health-promoting attributes such as protein, fiber and health-promoting ingredient category such as produce, whole grains, nuts or seeds will raise a product’s score; sugar, saturated fat, sodium and excess calorie content will lower a product’s score. For example, Planters Honey Dry Roasted Peanuts have an OptUP score of 63 (which falls into the yellow zone); Sabra Classic Hummus has a score of 73. Sugary dessert-like items such as Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream have a red zone score of 26, which indicates consumers should limit purchases.

OptUP also assigns app users an overall score from 1 to 1,000 based on total in-store purchases to gauge eating patterns. Notably, the app automatically pulls purchased products from loyalty card data—unlike most food tracking apps, users are not required to manually enter what products they buy, which prevents burnout and ensures more accurate reporting.

Data-driven personalization

A key component of the app’s capabilities is that it nudges consumers towards healthier products with higher nutrition scores based on the products shoppers have already bought. Those Planters Honey Dry Roasted Peanuts with a so-so score of 63? The app might suggest that users consider buying a better-for-you alternative such as Planters Unsalted Dry Roasted Peanuts, which has a significantly higher score of 80 thanks to the dearth of sugar and excess sodium.

How does the app know which products shoppers might be prone to purchasing if they’ve never purchased them before? Data. As in, mountains and mountains of data that requires a team of data scientists to analyze and optimize.

That team is 84.51°, Kroger’s data-driven arm of the business, which was heavily involved in the creation of OptUP. 84.51° aggregates data captured from shoppers’ Kroger royalty cards to cater promotional materials—including mailers, coupons and even bespoke magazines—to each customer’s individual preferences. For example, if you’re a vegetarian, and have never bought meat at Kroger, your coupon book won’t feature meat on the front cover.

84.51° took a similar personalized approach to the OptUP app.

If users filter out product suggestions based on the nine available dietary preferences ranging from vegan to keto friendly to dairy free, products that only contain these attributes will be ascribed to the app. More in-depth personalization will continue to be a main focus for OptUP creators in the future.

“Crafting an even more specialized consumer experience is a key,” says Richard Hall, vice president of digital and wellness at 84.51°, who adds that he’s particularly passionate about adding meal planning capabilities and a level of gamification to the app in order to encourage long-term user adoption.

Going forward, Kuhn aims to add even more health functionality to the app, which may include an exercise component, and hopefully an organic tag or filter for product recommendations. “The definition of health goes beyond what’s on the nutrition facts panel,” she says. “It’s about how the food is grown and how farmers treat the land, livestock and the laborers. That’s why a lot of people tend to gravitate towards organic … that’s definitely on our roadmap of one of the things we want to pull into the app.”

Data shows that the OptUP system is improving the way in which users eat. The first core group of participants improved their OptUP score by 13 points, indicating that easy-to-understand food scores are useful in helping shoppers make lasting better choices. “This tells us we’re meeting a consumer demand. Consumers are trading up categories. They’re buying more produce, and we know from studying associate biometrics, we know that improving an OptUP score gives us positive health results,” says Kuhn. “This is powerful stuff.”

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