April 2021 Issue
The Retail RD: Helping Shoppers Stay Healthy at Home
By Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN
Vol. 23, No. 4, P. 20
With consumers hoping to bolster their immune systems to protect against COVID-19, retail dietitians have an opportunity to play an important role in encouraging healthful eating during the pandemic. A 2020 global consumer insights study found that 63% of consumers say COVID-19 has made them more focused on making dietary changes as the primary effort to adopt a more healthful lifestyle.1 Indeed, the pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of eating, from food choices and habits to shopping behavior. This article highlights these changes and how retail dietitians are responding to increased demand for their services now and into the future.
The pandemic has influenced consumers to strive for more healthful eating as a step toward safeguarding their health. According to the 2020 International Food and Information Council’s annual food and health survey (conducted during the pandemic), more than one-half of consumers said healthfulness impacted their food choices more now than it did 10 years ago.2 When asked about the factors that most influenced food and beverage choices, the majority of consumers reported that overall health, rather than weight, mattered the most. Not surprisingly, immune function was among the top benefits sought from food by at least 40% of those surveyed. When it comes to food labels, “natural” was the most influential factor when purchasing food outside the home in 2020, comparable with results from 2019.
As consumers faced the unknowns of the virus’ spread and quarantines were put in place, there was wide variation in food choices among consumers. In the early days, panic buying dominated consumer behavior, and stockpiling food (and toilet paper) was widespread. As a result, total grocery sales significantly increased in 2020 compared with 2019. In particular, consumers bought more from healthful food categories than in the past, including frozen foods, fresh produce, and seafood. According to Nielsen, purchases of frozen foods were up 22% in 2020 through August compared with the previous year, with some of the largest increases in the frozen seafood (48%) and frozen fruit (46%) categories.3 In addition, fresh produce sales were up by 14% and fresh seafood sales were up by nearly 30% between March and October.4 The increased consumer focus on healthful eating is surely a silver lining of the pandemic and has set the stage for dietitians to support these positive eating trends into the future.
In addition to consumers opting for more healthful food choices, the pandemic dramatically has changed the way people shop for groceries. With safety and social distancing so highly prioritized, shoppers are spending less time in stores, making fewer trips, and using online shopping tools and technology more than ever before. According to Supermarket News, nearly 80% of consumers have purchased groceries online since the COVID-19 outbreak, with nearly 30% of those customers purchasing groceries online for the first time. Despite the fact shoppers are spending less time and making one-half the trips as usual to supermarkets, consumers are spending 44% more per trip and spending 17% more on weekly groceries than they did before the pandemic, according to data from Acosta Sales & Marketing. The supermarket industry survives and thrives by evolving with consumer demands, and in many ways the pandemic has had numerous positive impacts on the industry overall.
Just as shopping behavior has changed, so have consumer food habits. More than one-half of consumers are eating and preparing more food at home rather than eating in restaurants as a result of the pandemic, gaining greater control of selecting and preparing foods with nutritious ingredients.5 With more consumers working from home and fewer consumers dining out due to fear of exposure to the virus, people are spending more of their food dollars in supermarkets, while the foodservice and restaurant industry experiences sharp declines in sales. And as consumers spend more time in their kitchens, more than one-third of Americans have said they will eat out less often even after the pandemic, according to data from Technomic. But while home cooking is a great way to improve nutrition, more than one-third of consumers also reported needing help with meal planning and cooking skills, according to Acosta’s “COVID-19: Reinventing How America Eats” study, creating the perfect opportunity for retail dietitians to step in and offer their expertise.
How Retail RDs Are Responding
In many ways, retail dietitians already were well prepared for the changes in consumer food choices, shopping behaviors, and food habits caused by the pandemic. In fact, the resultant consumer interest and personal motivation to prioritize nutrition and healthful eating is an outcome all dietitians can celebrate. As many consumers are facing financial concerns due to COVID-19, retail dietitians have been offering free and low-cost nutrition programs that appeal to customers who can’t afford to get sick or seek other health care resources. Traditionally, most retail dietitians have focused on in-store nutrition education programs. However, since an increasing number of customers are shopping online, RDs have ramped up their telehealth and virtual nutrition programs and services to reach an expanded audience.
For example, retail RDs are offering a variety of culinary and children-focused classes in response to more customers cooking at home and often transporting children to various locations before and after school. You can find Kroger and ShopRite dietitians hosting virtual “cook-along-with-the-dietitian” sessions. These involve a recipe and shopping list shared with customers in advance so they can participate interactively during a live cooking demonstration. On-trend recipes that highlight fresh produce, seafood, convenience items such as frozen ingredients, as well as typical pantry staples, are used. Retail RDs have been using these methods as well as others to reach out to customers throughout the pandemic.
Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, manager of nutrition and lifestyle initiatives at Weis Markets based in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, says her team of dietitians started offering telehealth nutrition services via a video chat platform in April 2020. From the safety of their home, customers can connect to a member of the dietitian team who offers a nutrition consultation to manage an existing health condition, such as diabetes, celiac disease, or high cholesterol.
In addition, the dietitians offer group classes that are in high demand, such as a plant-based cooking class and very popular adult- and kid-focused interactive cooking classes. Stark thinks the virtual platform will continue to grow, as it has increased the reach of their programs exponentially over what they could have accomplished with in-person events alone. In addition, Stark and her colleague Kathryn Long, RDN, LDN, healthy living coordinator for Weis, host a biweekly podcast, HealthyBites, which anyone can listen to anytime to get expert nutrition advice and inspire healthful choices.
Joanne Heidkamp, MS, RDN, a dietitian based in Vermont who works for Hannaford, a supermarket chain based in Scarborough, Maine, reported that the company launched its virtual classes amid COVID-19 as well, since the pandemic’s onset prevented Hannaford’s dietitians from hosting in-store educational programs and cooking demonstrations. Heidkamp was excited for the rollout and the ability to offer customized virtual classes to community groups. Because many children aren’t in school, many of her programs are focused on engaging kids. She offers a “Kids in the Kitchen” cooking class series through two local libraries and says she can reach many more people than she would hosting a similar program in store because the online platform can accommodate a much larger number of participants.
There are many other creative and innovative ways retail dietitians are reaching customers: healthful meal kit solutions available through online shopping and delivery platforms, nutrition guidance through retail mobile apps, and social media platforms used to maximize interactions with shoppers and educate them on specific nutrition topics.
The way Americans shop for groceries may never be the same after the pandemic; while it can be intimidating, this “new normal” may not be such a bad thing for retail dietitians.
— Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, is a retail health and wellness strategy expert. She’s the founder of MarketRD.com, a consulting firm specializing in nutrition communications and connecting brands with supermarket dietitians.
1. PwC. Global Consumer Insights Survey 2020. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/consumer-markets/consumer-insights-survey/2020/pwc-consumer-insights-survey-2020.pdf. Published 2020.
2. International Food Information Council. 2020 Food & Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/IFIC-Food-and-Health-Survey-2020.pdf. Published June 9, 2020.
3. Baltazar A. Sales of frozen foods soar. Winsight Grocery Business website. https://www.winsightgrocerybusiness.com/center-store/sales-frozen-foods-soar. Published November 2, 2020. Accessed January 10, 2021.
4. Douglas Moran C. How grocery categories have fared during the pandemic. Grocery Dive website. https://www.grocerydive.com/news/how-grocery-categories-have-fared-during-the-pandemic/589236/. Published November 18, 2020. Accessed January 10, 2021.
5. Food Marketing Institute; IRi. The year that was: why integrating fresh is the key to future growth. https://www.iriworldwide.com/IRI/media/Library/Top-Trends-in-Fresh-11-17-20.pdf. Published November 17, 2020.
6. Redman R. It’s a new scene for grocery shopping as pandemic changes behavior. Supermarket News website. https://www.supermarketnews.com/consumer-trends/it-s-new-scene-grocery-shopping-pandemic-changes-behaviors. Published June 12, 2020. Accessed January 14, 2021.