Figuring out how to promote a healthy diet, one grocery item at a time

My team and I are developing a service to help someone gradually adopt a healthier diet. First, we will find the cheapest way to buy a shopper’s grocery list, and then, we will gradually suggest healthier substitutions or additions.

Testing our service

To refine the idea, we will recruit shoppers to test our service over the next several weeks. During our first week of the pilot, we plan to follow each participant through the store to learn as much as possible about their shopping habits, decision making, and meal planning.

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As the original idea took the form of a mobile app, this exercise will help release our minds from the design of “the screen” and help us focus on the value delivered. Even if the final manifestation is an app, interacting with the participant in-person will allow us to discover the ideal “conversation” to help the shopper receive the maximum benefit.

One drawback of this technique is that our presence may make shoppers more likely to choose the swap offered. Additionally, we will provide $5 HEB gift cards to thank shoppers for their time, which may make shoppers feel obliged to take our recommendations. Results may therefore be skewed. It will be important to lessen our physical presence as quickly as possible in subsequent weeks.

Recruitment

We will target people who go grocery shopping on a regular basis and need help adopting a healthier diet. This means that our recruitment efforts will span across socio-economic status. To quickly screen, we will ask potential participants to send photos of their refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, for a quick assessment of the kinds of food they bring home. 

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If you think about health on a spectrum, from burgers to salad, we’re looking to help people who buy more food towards the burger end of the spectrum.

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As we aim for gradual change, we hope to recruit at least 5 participants who will test with us multiple times over the next month. This duration will help us project whether or not our tactics and suggestions will make a positive difference in the long run.

Coupons

Given our effort to help shoppers save money, we began to look into coupons. After a bit of research, we realized that we must be careful to ensure that we’re actually using coupons to benefit the customer, and not the corporation.

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According to Rice University professor, Utpal Dholakia Ph.D, the pitfalls of coupons boil down to four main factors:

  • Regular coupon users pay less attention to the actual price and often end up paying more money.
  • Regular coupon users buy things they don’t need.
  • Regular coupon users buy more than they need.
  • Regular coupon users spend beyond their budget.

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Indeed, when we ran the pilot for the first time, our shopper considered taking advantage of the “2 for $6” yogurt sale, but then realized that she could not finish all 8 yogurts before their expiration date.

When we suggest sales, coupons, or lower prices, we must make sure that we’re not distracting our shoppers from a more responsible choice. 

Subject Matter Experts & Nutrition

We know that there are as many different opinions about health & nutrition as there are people in the world. It seems there’s always a new study about why this food may be good for you and that food bad.

Given the complexity of nutrition as a science, we will engage Nutritionists throughout the process to 1) make healthy swap recommendations and 2) frame why one food may be healthier than the other.

When running through our very first test, we saw just how much we needed this expertise. This was particularly clear than on the bread aisle — so many different choices! Moreover, even if we find the “healthiest” bread, our recommendations must also fit the shopper’s taste preference as well as budget.

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The Paradox of Choice: Fighting the power of brands & familiarity

The grocery store can be an overwhelming place, which is no wonder why we’ve met so many people who buy the same thing over and over again.

Have you ever actually looked at all the options down the cereal aisle?

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There are 12 different kinds of Cheerios, alone: Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Very Berry Cheerios, Multigrain Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch, Chocolate Cheerios, Fruity Cheerios, Cheerios Protein, Frosted Cheerios, Cheerios + Ancient Grains (?), and Pumpkin Spice Cheerios (so you can be in the holiday spirit, all year long).

Because of the incredible volume and variety of grocery inventory, it’s understandable that a customer’s brand loyalty would be hard to break — why spend time analyzing a sea of options, when your current choice is sufficient? Observations like these also prompt questions like:

  1. Rather than trying to influence a shopper’s cereal choice, would it be better to focus our efforts on change that might occur on an aisle with fewer choices, leaving the shopper with more mental space to consider other options?
  2. Or, if we endeavor to tackle the cereal aisle, would it be best to introduce a new, healthier item before the shopper enters the grocery store, before she becomes too distracted by all the other choices?

The more I learn about grocery shopping, the more I learn about the marketing strategies and business behind it. For example, I had no idea that stores rent out shelving space, and that, depending on the shelf, companies will pay more or less; the most expensive shelving is “the bull’s eye” zone (usually the 2nd and 3rd shelves), as it’s in the customer’s eye line.

In order to help our shoppers, we will have to compete with powerful marketing techniques, and help our customers look above and below for cheaper, and healthier options. A benefit of our service is offering 1-2 healthy alternatives per the shopper’s original, unhealthy choice — still giving the shopper a choice, but not so many that lead to overwhelm.

Capturing Feedback & Results

To capture feedback and results, we will document the shopper’s entire journey through the grocery store via photos, highlighting different decision points.

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We will also note the shopper’s path through the store, presenting what other items they might naturally see or pass, and therefore be more open to try in the future.

Lastly, as the shopper goes through the entire process, we will check and update the following assumptions:

  1. People use grocery lists, and if not, they will use one
  2. People will choose a healthier option if prompted
  3. People will choose a lower price over a brand they like
  4. People are willing to leave brands and items they’re used to
  5. People generally want to eat healthier
  6. People will eat new items they purchase
  7. People will be more likely to buy a new item if they get the new item before they get the original item

Measuring Success

To measure success, we will note the following:

  1. How many of the healthy alternatives the shopper accepted and why.
  2. If we were able to save the shopper money, and if so, how much.
  3. If the shopper would like to use our service again.

Other reflections

Keeping our eyes on the prize: Given the fact that coupons, price comparisons, and sales are so immensely complicated, we’ve found ourselves focusing more on how we can help someone save money, than eat healthily. In order to make an impact, we must keep coming back to our core value — helping someone gradually adopt a healthier diet.

Impulse Buys: One question we’ve asked ourselves is how we plan for impulse buys. When surrounded by so many options, it’s only natural for shoppers to pick up items not originally intended. In that instance, how does our service push the healthiest, cheapest option?

Convenience vs. Stick: If we go ahead and pull the healthiest/cheapest grocery items, we believe the shopper will be more likely to adopt those items. On the other hand, giving the shopper a choice, prompting slightly more reflection and initiative, may make the healthier habit more “sticky.”

Grocery Pilot Plan Presentation v1x