Pierce Hollingsworth

One of the most compelling emergent business opportunities of the new millennium is catering to consumers who look to commercially available foods to manage their diet, health, and vitality. These “self-care shoppers” are an affluent and growing force in the marketplace, as a result of rising media attention to health-related issues, greater access to diet and health resources, especially via the Internet, and an aging population (see this month’s Developing Foods Special Report beginning on p. 26).

The number of adults ages 45–64 will increase by 26% between 2000 and 2010, growing from 63.2 million to 79.7 million. This swell, due primarily to the Baby Boomer generation, will focus attention on products that address age-related health issues. But age is only one factor behind the self-care shopper trend, according to the Food Marketing Institute.“Americans have always been independent and they are now becoming more so regarding their healthcare. They no longer trust their doctor implicitly,” states FMI’s “Shopping for Health 2002, Self-Care Perspectives,” a joint market study conducted with Rodale Press.

Other factors include growing acceptance of unconventional health maintenance and treatment such as aroma therapy and homeopathic remedies; advances in medical research that help consumers understand the nature and cause of disease; and a growing arsenal of magazines, Web sites, and other health-related resources. Healthcare costs also fuel the trend. High deductibles and co-payments are a major incentive to seek better health through food selection. “As consumers increase the priority they put on their health, they look at all the self-care ‘tools’ available to them. Most obvious is the variety and quantity of food they eat,” the FMI study concludes.

Developing the right foods with the right message is the overriding challenge for food manufacturers. About two-thirds of self-care shoppers are women, according to FMI. Four in 10 experience or expect problems from high blood pressure or high cholesterol. About a third expect or currently suffer from diabetes or cancer, and a quarter anticipate or already have osteoporosis.

But this is just the core. Self-care shoppers are emerging from virtually all demographic segments. A startling 90% of all shoppers agree with the statement, “In most cases, eating healthfully is a better way to manage illness than medications.” Yet two-thirds admit that their diets should improve.

Why the gap? Six major reasons were identified, in the following order: “Healthy foods are not available from fast food and take-out restaurants.” “It costs more to eat healthy foods.” “I’m too busy to take the time to eat healthfully.” “There is too much conflicting information about which foods are healthy and which are not.” “Healthy foods don’t taste as good.” “The people I usually eat with do not eat healthy foods.”

The top five offer a compelling roadmap for food manufacturers in developing foods that are healthful, convenient, clear in purpose, and economical. In fact, FMI is urging its 2,300 members, who represent some 26,000 retail food stores, to overcome these obstacles with innovative in-store marketing techniques. These include stressing health in promoting ready-to-eat or prepared entrees as an alternative to dining out; featuring special healthy-eating displays that group product offerings in various grocery departments; developing aisle displays and shelf signs to make consumers more aware of healthy alternatives; developing promotions that combine the themes of health and speed, for shoppers in a hurry; and stressing in-store sampling of healthy products, with accompanying health information, to overcome the perception that healthy foods taste bad.

Clearly, retailers are beginning to get the message. In fact, the retail environment integrates food, pharmacy, fresh food, processed foods, in-store prepared foods, and even health-related equipment, from blood pressure kits to ab-crunchers. Understanding this environment is as important as understanding the consumer. The retail environment, where the consumer makes the final purchase decision, is critical. Working with retailers to develop effective in-store messages, promotions, and data collection is an essential ingredient in profitably addressing this trend.

It’s a tough challenge. Most consumers today have a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to food purchases. They crave indulgence, comfort, quantity, and convenience—and often have a hard time equating these attributes with healthy alternatives. Hence they bounce around in their food purchases, unable to establish any consistent dietary discipline.

“Despite the strength of their belief in the benefits of good nutrition, shoppers still express a high level of confusion about their diet,” the FMI study asserts. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for manufacturers—and the most profound opportunity.

Contributing Editor
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.
Wheaton, Ill.