Cooler Screens on refrigerated product doors in Walgreens.
Digital door displays by Cooler Screens, which allow shoppers to view ingredient and nutrition labels of products, have begun rolling out in Walgreens. — Cooler Screens

Why it matters:

  • The pandemic has intensified consumer interest in the nutritional functionality of foods.
  • Consumers’ concept of “wellness” has evolved to include their emotional and mental well-being, and food plays a role in achieving those goals.
  • Technologies have emerged that allow consumers to customize their shopping experience to meet their specific nutritional needs.

Consumers’ understanding of nutrition and how it influences their physical, mental and emotional well-being has been growing for several years, and that awareness has only heightened during the pandemic.

Retailers have long supported their customers with in-store dietitians and color-coded shelf tags that indicate the nutritional attributes of certain products, such as heart-healthy and gluten-free. But increasingly, those efforts are evolving to leverage more sophisticated technologies that allow greater personalization and customization of the shopper experience to meet specific nutritional needs.

Shelley Balanko, senior vice president at The Hartman Group, a food industry research and consulting firm, said consumer demands for nutrition have evolved as well.

“Even prior to the pandemic, we were seeing consumers embrace a more holistic notion of health and wellness and looking for foods and beverages that were going to help them prevent or treat, manage a wider array of conditions,” she said. “And COVID has shone a spotlight on this notion of food as medicine.”

[Read here on health and wellness business ideas.]

Even prior to the pandemic, we were seeing consumers embrace a more holistic notion of health and wellness and looking for foods and beverages that were going to help them prevent or treat, manage a wider array of conditions.

Shelley Balanko, senior vice president, The Hartman Group

Marketers connect ‘functional foods’ to mental and emotional well-being

Foods that provide immunity benefits garnered considerable consumer interest during the past year, but another emerging trend in the functional foods space is a focus on mental and emotional well-being, Balanko explained. Consumers are seeking foods that might help them sleep better or manage stress, she said, or foods that boost cognitive clarity or cognition.

Often, consumers are seeking what she described as “inherent functionality” — products that provide these benefits naturally.

“That's why we're seeing a lot of botanicals show up in foods and beverages,” she said.

According to Hartman Group’s Functional Food & Beverage and Supplements 2020 report, 87% of adults surveyed said they use supplements or functional foods and beverages for various health benefits.

Kroger Co. is among the retailers that have embraced the food-as-medicine trend, and it is leveraging technology to do so. The company’s OptUP mobile app, for example, seeks to help customers shop by dietary preference, view better-for-you recommendations, track dietary progress over time and collaborate on personal nutrition goals with Kroger’s dietitians.

In a recent interview with consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger Health, said the retailer hopes to eventually be able to add data from the OptUP app to customers’ electronic medical records.

Lindholz also agreed that the concept of wellness has evolved to encompass more than physical health.

“It’s not just about the food you put into your mouth; it’s about overall wellness, fitness, behavior, spiritual health, that type of thing,” she told WSL. “It’s really the mind, body, soul that we’re going for.”

[More here on other pandemic changes that are here to stay.]

 Person on a telenutrition video call provided by Kroger.
During the pandemic, grocery retailer Kroger launched a free telenutrition counseling service. — Kroger

Tapping tech to serve up customized food nutrition

Balanko of Hartman Group cited online retailer Thrive Market as another example of a company that has embraced the food-as-medicine trend.

“They do a lot of messaging around the functionality of foods,” she said.

The Los Angeles-based online grocer, which ships products directly to consumers within the 48 contiguous states in the U.S., allows customers to filter product assortments based on more than 70 different diets and attributes, such as gluten-free, ketogenic, organic or vegan.

Thrive Market’s user-friendly interface allows shoppers to create profiles that take into account their nutritional needs as well as their personal values, such as whether they prefer to shop for products that are fair trade certified or that have strong track records in animal welfare.

Meanwhile, drugstore retailer Walgreens is also rolling out innovative technology that promises to make shopping for foods that offer specific nutritional benefits easier. It is installing a digital display platform on the doors of its coolers that allows consumers to easily see the nutrition and ingredient labels of products in the coolers without opening the doors.

The technology, from Cooler Screens, was originally tested in six Walgreens locations and generated significant customer enthusiasm, as well as a boost in sales, according to Walgreens’ testimonial on the tech company’s site. The retailer is in the process of installing the digital screens in 2,500 of its stores.

Arsen Avakian, founder and CEO of Cooler Screens, said consumer interest in the nutritional attributes of food products was a significant motivating factor in his creation of the company.

“This is a very specific need that consumers have, which has probably been heightened by COVID, because consumers are trying to understand if the ingredients are really good for their immunity, or if there’s vitamin D, for example,” he said. “There is a lot of information-seeking at the shelf.”

Avakian said that Cooler Screens represents an effort to bring the best of the online shopping experience, which includes easy access to product information, into the brick-and-mortar environment.

The latest iterations of the screens are voice activated, which allows consumers to not only view the product labels without opening the cooler doors, but also to verbally ask aloud for the screens to display products that contain certain attributes, such as reduced sugar or a certain number of calories.

“We want to give people choices, so they can find the healthy products,” Avakian said.

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