Supermarkets can lead the way in the fight against fat and obesity

18 May 2016 8 min. read

Almost 25% of the UK population is obese, making our nation the most obese country in Western Europe. Obesity has increased by 10% in 20 years, suggesting that structural issues are at play, which are creating a costly social-economic issue that may become an intergenerational problem. Dealing with the issue calls on a wide range of stakeholders to create, or return to, the conditions – which have existed for hundreds of years previous – in which obesity was not a major epidemic. According to a new study, a more comprehensive approach is needed, with Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrison holding the answer to solving the ‘fight against fat’.

Obesity epidemic
Data from health authorities shows that the UK is the most obese country in Western Europe. 24.9% of the population is obese, indicating a BMI score or 30 or greater. Ireland is the next closest, with 24.5% of its population obese, while Spain and Portugal take the third and fourth spot at 24.1% and 21.6% respectively.

The level of obesity has been ticking up in recent years, increasing from around 15% in 1993 to its almost 25% today. The most affected socio-economic group are those on low incomes, with more than 33% of women in the group and almost 28% of men, obese. Higher income groups have lower incidences of female obesity, at 20%, and lower incidences of male obesity, at 24%. The areas of the country most heavily affected by obesity include Wales, the North of England and parts of Scotland.

Fighting Fat Obesity Overview

The causes of the more than 10% growth in the level of obesity over the past twenty years follow, according to analysts, from a wide variety of factors. Among the most commonly pointed at factors are an increase in the consumption of low nutrition food products (low nutritional value and high levels of sugar), the loss of the art of cooking a simple meal (due to among others a lack of basic skills), the rise of fast food chains and that of ready-made meals (e.g. microwave dinners, etc). Yet also non-food factors play a role, such as the falling rates of sports and the more sedentary life styles in general, in line with the stressful demands of modern life.

The effects of obesity are wide ranging, from personal discomfort to lower productivity and increased healthcare costs. According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, obesity costs the UK society a total of around $50 billion per year*, while another estimate places the NHS costs created by obesity at £5.1 billion per year, which, given the current trend of girth growth, is set to hit £9.7 billion by 2050. To deal with the problem a number of proposals have been presented, including healthy meals at schools (tackling childhood obesity), a built environment that encourages physical activity, taxing poor quality foods, improving labelling, reducing portion sizes, as well as encouraging food diversity and nutritious home cooked meals.

Supermarkets hold the key
According to a new study by Oliver Wyman, the UK’s supermarkets can play a key role in solving the country’s deepening obesity crisis, by contributing to awareness, driving purchasing decision making and enhancing the positive impact of the recently announced sugar levy. The report’s authors find that, to date, the battle against obesity has been relatively fragmented, with a range of stakeholders proposing a variety of initiatives. “Initiatives are typically only focused on a single element of the weight loss equation. For example, sugar consumption is in the headlines and is an important part of the problem, but this campaign misses the opportunity to encourage healthier habits like exercise. In addition, poorly targeted taxes and education campaigns can have the effect of driving consumers to unanticipated outcomes, such as switching from sugary foods to fatty ones.”

Going forward, the advisors state that a more comprehensive approach is needed, one that “touches every aspect of daily life,” says Nick Harrison, who led the report and co-leads Oliver Wyman’s European Retail Practice. One force that is ideally placed to do so are supermarkets. “Grocers have the opportunity to harness their customer relationships, take up the mantle and recognise their role as key players in the fight against obesity – for the good of the public’s health,” he comments. 

In particular the big four UK supermarket chains (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrison) are proposed to play a key role – they hold more than 70% of the UK grocery market, “together they come into contact with a large percentage of the UK population every month.” Building on their regular interaction points with customers, the large grocers are, unlike many other stakeholders involved in health and wellness, able to influence healthy purchasing behaviour, encourage people to increase their activity levels and, arguably most important of all, measure health outcomes and link them back to shopping habits and activity levels.

To help consumers make better food choices, the authors suggest moving to a points system calculated at the product level and then combined at the basket level. In their view the current traffic light labelling system leaves much to be desired. The system, because it requires a customer to make mental trade-offs between five different categories (calories, sugar, fats, saturates, salt), may result in confusion: is a product that’s green on fat but red on sugar better or worse than the other way round?

Instead of five indicators each with three levels (high, medium, low), each product label could show only two figures: 1) a Health Score ranging from -2 (unhealthy) to +2 (healthy), based on the overall nutritional value; and 2) the number of portions the pack contains.

At the checkout, the Health Score and the portion count would be combined, providing an overall indication of the respective health value for the whole shopping basket. The system would give an indication to the customer about their health behaviour, which may influence them to choose different products. The value of different products, in terms of their score, would be set by the government following advice from those whom have societal health, and not profit, as their only concern. This guidance, according to the firm, could be changed over time (given sufficient notice) to encourage food manufacturers to over time to change their recipes to create healthier products.

When it comes to stimulating exercise, Harrison says that while grocers do not directly control customers’ activity levels, they can play a role in encouraging people to be more active. One way could be to link activity monitors (such as Jawbones and FitBits) with loyalty schemes from grocers, while gyms in supermarkets or wellness clinics in store too are regarded as options. Attendance at the gyms and their fitness classes could be tracked via the swipe of a loyalty card. All the activity data could then be included on the shopping basket score: for example, every 10,000 steps could give a bonus activity score of +2. Through the use of smart technology, and new, innovative offerings, outcomes of shopping behaviour and/or activity could be used to improve the shopping – exercise circle.

What’s in for the supermarkets?
Besides contributing to tackling one of Britain’s most chief health concerns, the move may help the big four supermarkets further differentiate themselves in the marketplace, a welcome feat in light of the heating competition from discounters such as Aldi and Lidl as well as online channels. A recent study by Bain, for instance, found that by 2020, online channels will have significantly penetrated many grocery categories, eating away revenues from the traditional brick-and-mortar players.

“Grocers are continuing to face performance challenges and competition. By providing customers with new experiences and services related to wellness, they could strengthen their loyalty proposition to give them a significant competitive advantage.” They could even take the transition a step further, says Harrison: “By redefining themselves as health and wellbeing brands, and building customer loyalty through healthy living programmes, supermarkets are poised to create unique [commercial] propositions.”

Across the board, Oliver Wyman believes a transformation of the grocery landscape to include more focus on health and wellness would benefit the entire value chain, from consumers to the NHS. “This is a solution where everyone can benefit and which could transform the waistline of an entire nation,” explains Harrison. The industry, however, still has a long way to go if it wants to realise the potential, he acknowledges, remarking: “The ideas may at first seem straightforward, but bringing them all together in this setting has not been done before.”

* A similar analysis performed internationally shows that the global costs of obesity stand at $2 trillion a year.