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Walmart Nutrition Label: “Great for…?”

With the advent of their own nutrition labeling system, "Great for You," we can't help but make the observation that, like many well-meaning stakeholders in the "fight against obesity" and proponents of sound nutrition, Walmart has lost sight of consumers themselves. We say this because, as a firm composed of social scientists and business-minded cultural explorers, we consistently hear back from consumers that their needs in terms of food and nutrition extend far beyond symbols, rubrics and metrics pertaining to specific SKUs or eating systems such as "the food pyramid": What consumers do seek are solutions in the context of food that help them manage complex eating occasions and the diets, tastes and needs of various stakeholders within their constantly evolving households. In other words, it's not about the food, it's food culture itself that needs help.

Learning that Walmart has launched its own nutrition rating system for individual products, we’re struck by the mismatch that exists today between the reductionist, dietician orientation of many such systems and the broadscope habits of shoppers today when actually shopping for and planning meals. We say this because we know that food culture itself is undergoing rapid changes today, signs of which include:

Meal fragmentation and a decided emphasis on household members eating alone—this includes children and adults eating in a wide variety of settings and occasions (home, work, after school, etc.): Hartman Group analysis of meal occasions finds that 44% of adult eating happens alone, with nobody else—friend or family member—present. The lack of commensality (shared eating and meals) in our culture today has huge implications in terms of nutrition, health and wellness. In our weight management studies, parents reporting no weight problems with their children are more likely to eat meals as a family and keep healthy snacks available, and they say they encourage their children to exercise or participate in sports. These are variables that extend well beyond the context of food rating systems and speak to the complexity, as well as to potential for retailers like Walmart to "help" shoppers in the context of health and wellness. An example here would include web-based social media that focus on meal planning and where intersections occur between those products that Walmart is signifying as “healthier” and diverse meal occasions.

A focus on prepared and takeout foods from both restaurants and supermarkets—typically planned for immediate purchase and consumption. In the context of ordering food from menus in venues like casual restaurants, we find that consumers rarely consider nutritional information since they understand that the occasion is defined by indulgence, and therefore, nutritional considerations become largely irrelevant. In many cases, meals consumed away from home don't conform to socially shared values and rules which govern family/household eating occasions—as such, because household norms are no longer operable, there is little incentive not to overeat or make better choices. When consumers do make “healthier" choices, the decision is based as much on perceived quality differences as on any weight management distinctions (e.g., fats, carbs, calories). In scope and impact on nutrition and weight management, this trend toward "outsourced" meal preparation far exceeds in terms of behavioral magnitude whatever at the shelf rating systems many of today's supermarket retailers are employing as tools to "help" today's shoppers. While hardly a major profit pool for grocers yet, deli and prepared foods are exhibiting strong consumer demand suggestive of an unconscious demand for fresher-tasting convenient meal options in the traditional grocery trade—yet, few grocery retailers, including Walmart, are signaling cues that relate meal planning and consumption to “healthier,” nutrition-oriented initiatives.

Redefinition of quality—consumers have begun transitioning away from exercising careful nutrient-based choices at the shelf and at mealtime toward a more holistic understanding of high-quality food. Here our understanding of food shifts from something that must exist under our control to something that can be elevated to art for the sake of passionate enjoyment. And so long as one is patronizing purveyors of quality foods, there is much less felt need to obsess about nutrition.
At the shelf level, what we are experiencing is the fact that food culture has moved well beyond the gears created and intended by various stakeholders to help with the mechanism of food culture as a whole: Nutrition-rating tools like Hannaford's (Delhaize) "Guiding Stars," GMA/FMI's "Nutrition Keys" or Whole Foods’ "ANDI" system only have marginal relevance to shoppers who are just as likely to be shopping for dinner as for an SKU that's "low fat." 

Observations from social scientists within our firm show that shoppers do not take the time to investigate nutrition scoring systems (nor do they wish to). Add to that the fact that consumers often shop at least a few different stores with different or competing scoring systems—leading to the inevitable question, “Which one to follow?”

Even if a nutrition-rating system is noticed, it’s likely to be ignored: Consumers are likely to filter out messaging they do not immediately understand. In many ways, such programs have limited educational value because:
  • When consumers think about food they think in terms of quality which isn’t defined by a label—instead, they’re envisioning whole, real products with stories about where such products come from.
  • Health-conscious consumers, a category that includes broad segments of the public, already know “best in class” ingredients and are looking to the product label for ingredients and nutritional information anyway.
  • Such programs typically fly over the heads of less health-involved consumers who are simply looking to avoid a few negatives and aren’t particularly vigilant or knowledgeable.
  • Such rating systems often score items that consumers intuitively associate with health—green vegetables, fresh fruit, natural cheeses, etc.
  • In produce departments in particular, consumers feel everything there is healthy. It’s simply a matter of achieving variety and balance within those sections.
  • Systems like Whole Foods’ ANDI, which have a positive spin by accentuating “what’s good,” aren’t likely to persuade or dissuade purchase of something the shopper already wants. On a positive note, though, it might encourage experimentation.

For all intents and purposes, most nutritional scoring systems (especially in fresh departments of the store) are simply highlighting the “best” among what’s already good. And in such cases, a few simple rules of thumb that we’ve heard from diverse shoppers seem to resonate fully today:

“All vegetables, especially leafy green ones, are awesome for you. Eat as many as you can stand.”

 “Berries are the crown jewels of the fruit family, they’re both tasty and cancer fighters.”     

“A handful of seeds and/or nuts is an ideal snack, plus they give you those good fats we hear a lot about.”     
“We all love cheese and dairy products, and though they’re healthy, be careful not to overdo it.”            


Nutrition information programs that rely on point-of-purchase signage or shelf labeling to educate shoppers serve as little more than a thought trigger for health-conscious consumers. Food retailers, including Walmart, might consider “out of the box” thinking through which meaningful engagement with shoppers might be built around by:
  • Linking, potentially through social media, increasingly hectic meal planning and consumption to in-home realities, such as how to prepare meals using shelf-stable as well as fresh products.
  • Acknowledging the purchase influence of children by highlighting real stories of “what they like to eat” or prepare for meals.
  • Linking consumers’ unrelenting pursuit of new taste experiences to in-home cooking demonstrations that acknowledge ethnic cuisines.  
  • Broadcasting real shopping and meal preparation experiences, potentially via social media, which relate to the diverse meal occasions present today in food culture (such as eating alone “just for me”).
  • Consumers want choice. They want to choose a healthy option on one occasion and an indulgent choice on other occasions. In all cases, consumers are increasingly on the lookout for higher quality food options.


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As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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