Merchandising Gluten Free and Allergen Products in Your Store
July 27, 2008
A few weeks after giving birth to my daughter last year we discovered that she had food allergies. However, we didn’t know exactly what foods she was allergic to. The dermatologist who diagnosed the condition told me to avoid foods containing wheat, soy, dairy, nuts, eggs, peanuts, gluten, and shellfish for several weeks, and then slowly reintroduce each ingredient until we could unveil what exactly what causing my infant daughter’s distinct and painful rash. Then she left the room. No problem, I thought.
As the Director of Natural and Organics for Haddon House, a Specialty Foods Distributor, I read ingredient labels for a living. I am technically a professional at this. So I hit the grocery store and started to peruse the aisles. The next thing I knew, over three hours had past. Meat, potatoes, rice, and (plain) veggies was about as far as I got.
While some people can live on this diet, my taste palate regularly traverses the globe with an appreciation for highly spiced foods and for melted cheese sandwiches. Plus, I am a working momma, so I don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen, working up complicated recipes. I was exasperated as I read the backside of a zillion familiar jars and packages, desperately looking for a combination of ingredients that earned the right to pass into my cart.
Food allergies affect approximately eight percent of children and two percent of adults. Yet, many more people self-diagnose. One out of three people either have a food allergy or they modify the family diet because a family member is suspected of having a food allergy. There are eight foods that account for 90% of all food-allergy reactions, those being cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans, and wheat. Meanwhile, it is estimated that about one percent of the US population has Celiac Disease. And there are others who use a gluten free diet to help manage other health-related problems (Autism, AD/HD, migraines), which translates into an estimated one billion dollar market for the products.
While there are brands that specifically produce gluten free alternatives in dedicated facilities (Tinkyada, Kinnicknick and Pamela’s, for example), there are many gluten free products on the market that many (but not all) celiac patients can eat such as varieties of Amy’s soups, Envirokids cereals, Organicville dressings and condiments, and Green Mountain Gringo Tortilla Chips.
Many stores merchandise a separate gluten free section. There are two challenges here from a marketing standpoint. One is that you are excluding many items in their regular sections that would cater to many celiacs, and therefore losing potential sales. The second problem with a gluten free section is that you are excluding other people with their own dietary concerns. What about the mom who has a child who cannot eat peanuts? Where is your peanut free section? How about low protein for kidney patients, or a low sodium section for the 73 million Americans with high blood pressure?
There are retailers who are fortunate enough to hire corporate dieticians with the proper training to oversee special diet needs, but there is a slight but real chance of liability if a retailer without such staff makes an inappropriate claim in their merchandising or marketing materials. Therefore, “gluten free” or other special diet shelf tags may not be beneficial. The tags are often torn down or relocated by competing vendors, moved by mischievous kids, or just not properly maintained. Shelf strips or shelf headers announcing “Gluten Free,” “Special Diet,” or “Allergen” are probably more effective.
While I maintain gluten free planograms for those customers who request it, I find that the issue of whether to integrate your gluten free products or have a separate section for them really depends on the store. In some stores, once we broke apart a (faltering) gluten free section and integrated the items into their regular sections, sales improved. In other stores, we built a separated section and responses were positive. You may also consider building a gluten free and allergen section for dedicated items, supplemented by a separate marketing program or shopping list that identifies some of the crossover items. Many gluten free products are often produced free of major allergens, so these products can appeal to both. By offering both gluten free and/or allergen sections, you will now cater to a much wider audience and increase traffic to your sections.
Shari Stern, M.A., has worked in the natural foods industry for over ten years in retail, marketing, public relations, and category management. She is currently the Director of Natural and Organics for Haddon House Food Products, Inc, a Specialty Foods Distributor. Shari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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