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Land of Milk and Calories: Have Grocery Aisle Displays Evolved?

Hank Cardello

One of the ways that consumers are enticed to buy foodstuffs in grocery stores is product displays that highlight selected brands. In industry vernacular, these displays can be “stand-alone” (not attached to anything), “end caps” (billboards at the front and back of each aisle), or “wings” (attached to the sides of other displays). 

As fodder for my book, Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, I wanted to find out what kinds of products were predominantly marketed on these displays, so I conducted random surveys in several grocery stores. Not surprisingly, I discovered that between one-half and two-thirds of items on display were either high in calories or of poor nutritional quality.

The audit revealed that among the average 67 displays per store examined, 59 percent of the highlighted brands were not what nutritionists would describe as “better-for-you.”

That was three years ago, so I wanted to see if anything had changed given the nation’s persistently high obesity rates. With pad and pen in hand I (unscientifically) conducted another random survey of supermarkets near where I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. For the record, North Carolina ranks among the country’s 15 most obese states, and I was curious to see if the calorie trend had passed its zenith.

My findings suggest otherwise.

The audit revealed that among the average 67 displays per store examined, 59 percent of the highlighted brands were not what nutritionists would describe as “better-for-you.” Not much of a change. Unsurprisingly, displays were dominated by salty snacks, baked treats, cookies, and high-calorie beverages. 

In particular, less than half (43 percent) of the snack displays offered options to purchase lower-calorie or reduced-fat versions. But there was a hidden upside. Virtually all the beverage displays (88 percent) merchandised low- or no-calorie drinks either by themselves or in tandem with regular sugar-sweetened types.

So is there hope that more “better-for-you” products will be marketed by grocers? Does it make sense for retailers to do so? It all comes down to economics.

Grocers’ profit margins are exceptionally thin and they look for any way to make a dollar. One practice is to charge food marketers to place their products on display. And manufacturers are willing to spend that extra money, but generally only for those products that generate the most volume and profits for them. These oftentimes are not brands that qualify for the Nutrition Emmys. Therein lies the conundrum.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. A number of grocery initiatives have been launched specifically to accentuate more nutritious products in a way that sustains profits and differentiates retailers from their competitors:

  • HyVee, an innovative grocer in the upper Midwest, is piloting a Blue Zones lane that offers only better-for-you products at the checkout counter. Featured items include granola bars, carrots, dried fruits, string cheese, and flavored water. So far the grocer has noted positive results, such as a 60-percent increase in sales of soy nuts, a 30-percent increase in sales of raw no-salt sunflower seeds, and a 16-percent increase in sales of Sunsweet prunes.

  • Lakeland, Florida-based Publix offers five healthier, ready-to-eat kid’s meals. Each meal consists of an entrée, two sides, and a drink. Examples include chicken tenders on a honey wheat roll, mini carrots, kid’s yogurt, and fruit drink, and oven-roasted turkey breast on a honey wheat roll, apple and grape packet, mini raisins, and organic white milk. At $3.99, they are reasonably priced while yielding more than acceptable profit margins.

Should these initiatives be successful, supermarket chains will have all the incentive they need to aggressively merchandise better-for-you foods. Their bottom lines and their customers’ health depend on it.

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