As part of a recent feature in industry magazine, The Grocer, they have conducted some market research which found that “45% of Brits think free from foods should be merchandised as part of the general range, rather than in a dedicated section.” (full details here).
It seems the survey was of general consumers, rather than just those that already buy free-from goods, but I reacted that it would make the weekly shop a bit of a treasure hunt for the free from consumer! In fact, based on a brief poll of my free-from twitter followers, most agree with me on this, with many citing the convenience of a dedicated free-from section as the main reason, although this is not a unanimous verdict, with many wanting a more ‘normal’ shopping experience, and those avoiding other allergens than gluten already having to scour much more broadly for their free from products.
Many shops and manufacturers have a mix and match approach to where they display their free from goods. Patchily stocked free from shelves often contain sweet treats and the occasional curious naturally gluten free product like peanut flour (marvelous for other allergies, I don’t think); and naturally free from hidden treasures are stocked elsewhere in the store, as well as the odd labelled free from product to maximise its potential buyer pool.
Every free from shopper knows, you need a slightly geeky knowledge of each major supermarket to find what you need! You need to know, for example, that in Tesco there’s a free from section and a free from freezer section (and sometimes even a free from chiller section!); but in Marks & Spencer you need to look in every aisle for the little gluten free logo. In Whole Foods, you takes your chances in with the baked goods and gluteny flour. Unless you’re in the biscuit aisle. SO confusing! Coeliac UK have to publish an annual directory just to help us with the weekly shop. It’s enough to make most of us turn to online shopping (assuming they’ve tagged their products correctly).
The Marks & Spencer approach was very popular among my twitter followers, and shows that with a clear labeling system so suitable products can be easily found on all shelves, integrating us free from types with the regular shopper is definitely possible, and makes us feel more ‘normal’ than a visit to “the shelf where products go to die”. It is very timely that Foods Matter are launching an accreditation system: over time as manufacturers opt in, this won’t only give reassurance to those of us plagued by the ambiguity of allergy labeling (or lack of), consistent and recognisable flourishes on the packaging will be a massive time-saver.
Even with clear labelling, cross-contamination in store is still a concern for those with allergies/coeliac, though: in the retailers that do this already, it is not uncommon to find a broken bag of wheat flour leaking all over the gluten free flour in Whole Foods – a sight that makes me shudder! All too often in many shops, non free-from products are mistakenly put in the wrong place; and stores with excellent free from products spoil their reputation by not understanding their customer’s needs at the point of sale and create risk for the allergic shopper in a hurry.
It’s this, among other things, that makes me wish retailers and manufacturers didn’t segment their products so much into a free from ‘category’, and manage them as separate businesses. I think this drives certain behaviors and product profiles, for example:
- Emphasis on lines that are sure to sell well in a very small market (compared to the overall food market) e.g. gluten free above all other ‘free froms’, sweet treats with long shelf life etc.
- Mis-marketing of free from products as ‘healthier’ by association with whole foods or diet products to maximise appeal
- A fight for shelf space in smaller stores
- Confusion among shop staff and shoppers between ‘free from’ lines and ‘normal’ lines from the same brand
- A ‘blind spot’ as far as the overall free from shopping experience goes
Because of this, I think Free From needs to be more than a category.
The reason Marks & Spencer are winning such affection from the gluten free community, is not so much to do with where their products are shelved, nor their (frankly pretty average) gluten free bread; but the growing abundance of ‘normal’ products sporting a gluten free logo, and their clear allergen labelling policy. The range now includes everything from sausages to Christmas party food, with a fair few proper puddings among plenty of naturally gluten free options too. But with this context, it’s baffling that their cafes in the same stores have such a poor gluten free offering.
My suggestion to supermarkets and manufacturers is this: don’t think just about creating specific products for the growing free from market, take a look at all of your existing range and practices. How can they be made more accessible for the free from consumer? And what can you put in place to help this across your store/product range? We are in the age of customer experience, and customer satisfaction with their experience breeds loyalty (believe me, the free from community can be fiercely loyal). Instead why not think about:
- How can your existing products be slightly modified to maximise their appeal to free from consumers (traces of milk in a gluten free sausage seasoning, why?!)?
- How can your manufacturing/food preparation/shelf-stacking processes be tightened up to minimise cross contamination?
- How can you make sure you are consistent in use of ingredients/labels across your range?
- How could your shopping experience be made easier and more accessible for your customers? Perhaps shelf labelling, a store guide and training for staff on allergies/coeliac?
- How can you inspire and engage free from shoppers?
I’m not saying these are cheap, or simple changes to make, but they would create a more sustainable impact than a here today, gone tomorrow new product. When any company looks at their customer experience, they should be looking at free from consumers as an important segment with unique needs outside of the free from aisle too.
In my day job, I help businesses to transform their way of doing business in a digital world – many of them do this by creating a ‘champion’ or ‘centre of excellence’ to educate and inspire change in the organisation with the end goal that the change is so embedded in how you do things you don’t need the role any more. I think there might be a similar role in retailers and manufacturers for a ‘free from’ champion; for someone that considers the whole customer experience, rather than just the product. This person could be measured on customer acquisition, satisfaction, and retention. They might find in their research that we do want to shop from a free from section, but I expect they’ll find we’d like to buy a lot more too.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Where would you like to find free from products? What could supermarkets and manufacturers do to make your shopping experience easier?