17 August 2017


As obesity levels in the UK continue to soar, new proposals could see nutritional information being displayed on supermarket receipts to push consumers towards healthier choices. While this is a step in the right direction, consistent implementation could prove tricky, suggests Ed Perkins, operations manager at Solutions for Retail Brands (S4RB).

Consumers are now so accustomed to seeing the traffic light symbols on grocery products that they rarely give them a second thought. Though the system is not enshrined in law, and there are variations between retailers, as many as 83 per cent of shoppers now use it when deciding what to buy at the supermarket.[1]

Simplicity is the system’s biggest strength. Time-pressed customers no longer have to trawl through a raft of ingredients, trying to work out how much fat, sugar and salt a product contains per portion. Nutritional values are now communicated clearly and succinctly on the front of the packaging, so they can digest key information in a matter of seconds.

Recently, academics at Birmingham City University went one step further, suggesting that the traffic light symbols could be included on till receipts to show the nutritional composition of an entire trolley or basket.

In theory, this proposal is commendable and seems to be a positive move in the fight against obesity. Week-on-week, consumers can see how healthy their eating habits are and make the necessary adjustments and for those who subsist on a diet of junk food, seeing the red symbols may act as a wake-up call to change their lifestyle. More generally, it is hoped that people will become more mindful about what they pick up when shopping.

However, this rests on the assumption that people do all their weekly shopping in one place. In fact, the customer journey has become more fragmented, with people buying their groceries from a mix of large retailers, discounters, specialist shops and convenience stores. To muddy the waters further, one in six customers have admitted to switching their main supermarket in the past year, often swayed by what they consider value for money elsewhere.[2]

It might be that someone buys fruit and vegetables from a green grocer, only visiting the supermarket to pick up milk, cheese and meat. Taken together, the products form the basis of a healthy diet, yet the lack of vegetables and higher fat content could ring alarm bells on a new ‘smart’ receipt. It may even mislead the more health-conscious into substituting products or cutting back unnecessarily.  

When the traffic light system is applied to individual items, it is easy to make a decision about its health merits based on portion sizes. But it becomes less straightforward when nutritional information is amalgamated onto a receipt. Members of a household can differ vastly in what they eat, so this single snapshot does not always reflect reality if one person eats most of the vegetables and the other only eats pasta and bread for example.

On top of this, receipt-based information is only meaningful to customers if there is consistency between different retailers – something that could prove difficult in practice.

Another option is an app that enables people to input details about their shop, however, there is a danger that this would only appeal to those already making healthier choices – and this requires buy-in and activity from the customer.

If implemented, this system would certainly impact on retail and supplier operations, particularly when it comes to cross-promotion in store. The days of two-for-one pizzas could be a thing of the past, replaced instead with pizza-and-salad offers to encourage people to choose a more balanced range of products.

This is no bad thing of course, though it does rely on retailers keeping suppliers informed about how their products are being merchandised. If suppliers want to create healthier recipes, they would first need to know what is being purchased alongside their own items to get an idea of what the traffic lights would look like.

Over the past five years, retailers have made great strides in adopting this system for its private branded goods, but there is still work to be done. Rather than bombarding customers with extra information, I believe suppliers should be encouraged to make genuine product nutritional changes to healthier products, which improve their on-pack traffic lights. The real goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to make an informed choice about what they actually eat as opposed to a mix of products they only partially consume.


[1] Source: http://www.bcu.ac.uk/news-events/news/new-till-receipt-design-could-make-us-healthier-say-academics

[2] Source: https://www.marketingweek.com/2017/02/20/grocery-loyalty/    


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