KANSAS CITY - In the food world, there are few concepts more important than that of health. Whether they follow through with it or not, Americans consistently say they want to eat more healthfully, seeing food as medicine and a key component of their overall wellness. 

Given our technology-obsessed culture, there’s no better way for retailers and others all along the supply chain to deliver the health marketing and education consumers are craving than through phones, tablets, computers, instore screens and kiosks and other devices. 

And with COVID, the interest in health and the reliance on technology has never been more important, in all aspects of life, creating a huge opportunity for retailers to learn from this moment to deliver relevant health information to their customers via technology.  

As the lines between the digital and physical world continue to blur, digital enhancements to the instore experience, particularly within fresh perimeter departments, are vital to delivering health and other information, said Andrew Moberly, director of category solutions for Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon. 

“Consumers are turning to online channels for their shopping needs, with more than 8 in 10 consumers planning to make the same amount or more online purchases of food and nonfood products in the future,” Moberly said. “Developing an omnichannel approach is crucial to simplifying the shopping experience, and in turn, developing loyalty for your banner through your private brand programs.”

To deliver on health-related and other expectations, consumers must develop a true omnichannel experience, be it through enhanced mobile app functionality, digitally integrated merchandising, or new shopping experiences that facilitate meal planning in and out of the store, he added. 

And as immunity boosting and claims like “fortified with vitamins and minerals” became some of the top purchasing drivers within the last year, retailers can support shoppers’ needs by incorporating technology such as instore QR codes to show nutritional content and benefit callouts.   

“Technology is being embraced perhaps unlike any other time in our lifetime, with a higher acceptance rate from both retailers and shoppers,” Moberly said. “Many of the advances seem to be addressing shoppers’ needs to make more informed decisions on what they purchase.” 

Equipment’s role

High-tech equipment and employee health go hand-in-hand for Troy, Ohio-based Hobart Food Equipment Group, said Megan Pettit, food machines marketing specialist.

The most recent addition to the Hobart line for the grocery perimeter is the Portion Scale Slicer, which delivers on a key component of health: food safety. The unit features an easy-to-use interface and integrated scale. The operator just plugs in how much meat or cheese needs to be sliced, an once that amount is achieved, the slicer will stop on its own.

“It eliminates trips back and forth between the slicer and an external scale,” Pettit said. “It also means the employee can help other people in the line or work on another task. The slicer is especially helpful during COVID, as more people are eating at home and getting meat from their grocery.”

The new slicer can also keep up with increased demand, keeping the deli line moving twice as fast as some other, older slicers.

Cleaning and sanitation have always been important to Hobart, Pettit said. Hobart equipment features several features that make it easy to clean. The Portion Scale Slicers, for example, have a tilt and removable carriage and removable knife, knife cover and ring guard.

“These features make it easy for the operator to get in the crevices of the slicer and thoroughly clean each part.”

Hobart is constantly working to improve and refine its technologies, Pettit said. New Portion Slicer technology includes an easy-to-use interface where the operator can plug in how much meat or cheese that needs to be sliced. Once that amount is achieved, the slicer will stop on its own.

A cornerstone of any health-centered program is food safety, which has become even more important with COVID, she added.

“People going into grocery stores want to feel comfortable and safe. It’s important for us to support retailers in the food safety aspect.”

Soaring demand, new tools 

There can be no doubt: Shoppers are more actively seeking nutritional and production information online, which is creating an opportunity for retail to embrace technology platforms that support shoppers’ health and wellness goals.
Some recent initiatives cited by Moberly include Carrefour France launching personalized nutritional scores, and Schwarz Group Kaufland expanding the Nutri-Score system to more Private Brands.

Transparency also continues to be a growing need for shoppers in food safety, but also understanding the impact of the purchases they make, he added. 

“We are seeing technologies like time-temperature indicators that identify if the cold chain was broken. These labels quantify breaks in the cold chain, by measuring both the time out of temp and the temperature reached to recalibrate the shelf life of the product.”

Not only do such products indicate freshness, they can also tell the consumer when the product is at higher risk for foodborne illness. 

Another way technology is embracing transparency is through apps that measure the sustainability of products and rate their environmental footprint. Other technologies, like indoor/vertical farming, are not new, but they’re becoming more viable as commercial solutions that can make a positive impact on sustainability challenges like food miles and water waste, Moberly said.

COVID has elevated the importance of maintaining a nutritious and healthy lifestyle, with 77% of consumers looking to live a healthier life post-pandemic, Moberly said.

During the pandemic, shoppers transitioned from their on-the-go lifestyles to preparing and consuming almost all their meals at home. They relied much more on the perimeter and other grocery departments for products that delivered key immunity-boosting and better-for-you ingredients, with more than one-third of adults saying they’re more concerned about their immune system health now than they were prior to the pandemic.  

Additionally, Moberly said, with the shift towards healthier lifestyles, affinity for plant-based foods became a key focus, with 40% of consumers trying to eat more plant-based foods. 

“With the effects of the pandemic ongoing, shoppers are expected to continue this increase of eating at home and healthier lifestyles, while looking for retailers to simplify the process to securing healthy mealtime solutions,” he said. “As consumers have adopted these new health and nutrition routines, the more retailers can provide accessible solutions, the greater likelihood consumers will maintain loyalty for those who deliver on their wellness expectations.”

Using technology to balance health, value 

Going forward, consumers will continue to search for ways of maximizing their spending dollars while not compromising on value, and technology and health will play central roles. 

With the pandemic affecting nearly one-third of consumers financially, income constraints present further challenges for shoppers, Moberly said. As a result of these challenges, 70% of shoppers reported purchasing a different brand than they had pre-COVID, with nearly 30% reporting positive experiences from brand switching and plan to permanently commit.

“This generated significant new Private Brand trial,” he said. “Our research shows that once private brand trial is initiated, consumers will continue to shop at specific retailers for their private brand offerings.”

However, he added, it’s critical that retailers utilize technology in order to better serve these consumers to simplify the path to purchase. With the increase in online shopping expected to continue, retailers must emphasize their health and wellness private brand products front and center on their e-commerce platforms, websites and apps.

“Consumers develop a loyalty to and trust private brands within the fresh and perimeter store categories,” he said. “Highlighting private brand health and wellness on the digital shelf is crucial to initiating new trial for online shoppers, using product benefits from items in shoppers’ digital shopping carts to recommend additional supplements during check out.”

Retailers with best-in-class private brands are leveraging their digital real estate to promote their brands, including having a dedicated private brand web page that best positions the scope and benefits of each line, leading in product-level search on retailers' websites, and featuring private brands on social platforms while incorporating online recipes, digital coupons and other digital assets.