business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Not many of us are prone to cheering for new laws, but every now and then one comes along we should consider in a new light.

For example, the locality I live in, Montgomery County, Maryland, (motto: Yup, we’ve got a law for that too!) has a new idea with some merit. The county wants restaurants to start listing ingredients and nutritional information in easy to find places for patrons.

Now I’m certain that my home county, which is famous for studying the same road project for 20 years, will find a way to make this complex beyond belief. Yet the idea is actually one we should all be pushing despite the dislike of most legislation. Consumers tell us health and wellness has become one of their biggest worries. They have connected the simple logic that what they eat can lead to how they weigh (and feel). And while their dieting strategies might be lacking, their concern and anger is not.

Here’s the intersection with supermarket interests. For years (decades actually) supermarkets have lost an increasing share of meal time to eating out. We’ve all known for a while that half of food dollars are now spent outside the home and we actually cheer the lack of further erosion. What’s worse, the younger the shopper the more ingrained the culture of eating out. The battle for the future is worrisome beyond belief.

The battle for meal time and health and wellness has to be fought on two fronts. The first is the proverbial level playing field. Shoppers want and get nutrition information in the store on everything they buy. It’s easy to find, easy to read and fairly easy to understand. Improvements are always possible, but honestly it is pretty good. Let’s make sure the same shopper who has become radicalized about trans fats in the supermarket know what they are getting when they sit down at a restaurant for an 8 ounce burger with cheese and fries. It might not change meal time completely, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. In that light, Montgomery County (this time at least) may not be off base.

Then supermarkets have to continue to build on the really impressive efforts being made to win that same shopper back to the supermarket aisles. This too doesn’t get talked about enough, but the work on meal solutions type products is really impressive. Food quality and taste is up, the diversity of menus is growing and the theater of prepared foods is constantly improving throughout the industry.

So many steps can be taken by simply applying some new ideas and thinking. This came across to me during a recent visit to a new Harris Teeter store, which really does a superlative job on meal products. This store features an incredible array of food prepared choices, geared to different times of the day. In truth, the scope might be beyond many retailers or might be wrong for your shopper base.

But the simple ideas in the store certainly could be mimicked. For instance, on prepackaged egg salad, Harris Teeter took the little step of just adding to the label the brand name of mayonnaise used. That’s a small step that could be taken on so many prepared products in virtually every store.

It’s not very profound, but it sends a message to the shopper that the products we use are the products they use. It reminds them that our concerns about nutrition are the same as theirs. And that we are all in this together.

I’ll say this for the industry. While we’ve been at this issue longer than Montgomery County has been trying to build that one road, we’ve made way more progress. But that may not be the best benchmark either.
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