The future of health in grocery

HFSS retail trials. Will the coming changes create a retail environment that supports healthier choices?

April 06, 2022
Kathryn Race
A woman in a yellow top pushing a shopping trolley in a supermarket
April 06, 2022
Kathryn Race

With the HFSS clampdown less than six months away (that’s assuming we won’t see further delays – George Eustice’s recent comments at the FDF conference appeared to leave some wriggle room on that), the impact of the new rules on in-store layouts is starting to come into sharper focus.

Live trials of post-HFSS store designs kicked off in earnest at the start of the year, with Sainsbury’s and Tesco leading the pack. Sainsbury’s in particular is trialling some of the more radical solutions to HFSS, including completely removing gondola ends in some stores and replacing them with advertising space.

It’s also running some interesting experiments with using gondola ends to showcase products with strong sustainability credentials. (Think Waitrose’s B Corp fixtures but for general sustainability.) Recent examples we’ve spotted featured products from Jude’s, BrewDog and Union Coffee, all complete with POS explaining what they’re doing for the environment.

At Tesco, meanwhile, the approach to post-HFSS store design looks to focus heavily on highlighting Clubcard prices, including in dedicated promotional bays. At the same time, the retailer is also looking for ways to draw shoppers’ attention to healthier choices. This includes deploying in-aisle bays in categories such as savoury snacks and cereal bars to highlight products that meet certain key health criteria, for example products under 100 calories and those that are low in sugar.

This type of health-focused signposting has been used in other categories for some time (including for low-fat dairy products), so it will be fascinating to see whether the HFSS clampdown will result in it being adopted more widely across grocery.

One interesting potential consequence of using health credentials to segment shelves in this manner is that it could make it harder for some healthier products to achieve standout. For example, if you are a brand that ticks multiple health boxes, where do you sit? And what about those brands that are a healthier choice thanks to their use of natural, wholesome ingredients but don’t neatly fit under a ‘100 calories’ or ‘low sugar’ label?

As ever when it comes to the health debate, so much depends on your definition of ‘healthy’.

Of course, whether any of these trial formats will ultimately be rolled out to the wider store estates is hard to gauge at the moment. While there are some clear layout trends – including the deployment of branded and promotional bays in-aisle and greater use of ‘power aisles’ - much about HFSS remains in flux, and retailers are experimenting with lots of options right now.

But, clearly, the need to fill space freed up by HFSS products from October should create new opportunities for health-focused brands. For example, it would be great to see the concept of sustainability-themed gondola ends applied to health and other ethical credentials that resonate strongly with shoppers.

It will also be interesting to see to what extent the plant-based sector will be able to take advantage. As highlighted in our previous newsletter, the health and nutrition profile of some plant-based products means they aren’t a shoo-in for healthier gondola ends, but there will be opportunities for the right products and brands.

Overall, however, the jury is still out on whether the coming changes will indeed create a retail environment that supports healthier choices.

Healthy brands should not assume the new rules will automatically work in their favour.

With HFSS brands under pressure to find new ways to be seen and heard from October, competition for shopper attention will be high and stores could become rather noisy. This could ultimately make it harder, not easier, for health-focused brands to stand out in store and capture shoppers’ attention.