How supermarkets can help curb Latin America's childhood obesity crisis

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Thanasis Zovoilis
© GettyImages/Thanasis Zovoilis

Related tags: Obesity, Retailers, Childhood obesity, Marketing

By encouraging unhealthy food purchases, supermarkets are worsening Latin America’s childhood obesity crisis – but certain strategies can help both public health and retailer profits, according to a recent UNICEF report.

Childhood overweight and obesity is a major problem in Latin America and the Caribbean, affecting up to 52 million children and teenagers.

How food is sold influences which foods are bought and eaten, and retailers, therefore, have a responsibility to apply certain key strategies that encourage healthier food purchasing decisions in-store, according to a recent report published by UNICEF, ‘Childhood Overweight and the Retail Environment in Latin America and the Caribbean’.

Based on research carried out in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico by market research firm Kantar Retail and the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico (INSP) for UNICEF, the report suggests simple strategies that supermarkets can put into place to encourage consumers to buy healthier food. By doing so, progressive retailers can support their own corporate social responsibility goals while maintaining market share and profitability.

The United Nations agency chose to focus on the retail sector because three-quarters of food and beverage purchases in Latin America occur in supermarkets, and half of those decisions to purchase are unplanned. Furthermore, about 65% of the products sold in supermarkets are processed, while fresh fruits and vegetables account for just 15% of sales.

Currently, supermarkets’ marketing strategies are “overwhelmingly geared towards unhealthy foods and beverages”, ​said UNICEF. Around 75% of the stores studied, for instance, use discount strategies to promote sugar-sweetened beverages.

Go beyond compliance

Supermarkets should ensure that all in-store advertising of food aimed at children is of a high ethical standard and compliant with national and international guidelines.

However, retailers should go beyond compliance to actively encourage healthier eating. They can improve the nutritional value of their own private label products and use pricing strategies to increase the sale of fruits and vegetables, adjusting the profit-sharing balance between healthy and unhealthy products.

The report cited the example of one Chilean supermarket which uses Disney cartoon characters on snack-size packets of fruit and vegetables, ideal for packed lunches at school.

According to the report authors, all supermarket departments should come together to develop a strategy.

Establish an internal committee with representatives from different areas - marketing, distribution, etc. - responsible for carrying out an analysis of the company’s impact, designing a corresponding strategy to promote healthy eating and prevent obesity, identifying appropriate indicators, and establishing progressive goals.”

'Better management of existing shelf space'

Healthier food and drinks should be placed in more prominent locations throughout the store, including at eye level and within reach of children.

Retailers can maintain profitability by swapping unhealthy products for healthy products of the same value and by better managing existing shelf space, making the shopping experience more enjoyable.”

Promotional pricing, such as coupons, discounts and reward programs could encourage customers to purchase healthy foods by offering at least a 10% discount on products and healthier versions of products within a product category, such as low-fat milk instead of whole milk or wholegrain bread rather than white bread.

“By incentivizing and promoting healthy food options, not only can stores attract more people to food categories such as fruits and vegetables, but shoppers will buy more if they feel they are getting value for their money and if it is good for their families.

“And they will buy more healthy food in the future. As businesses create new ways to work in partnership with government, such initiatives will also generate good public relations and attention for the store and the brand.”

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