In the aisles of her local Raley’s supermarket, Nayeli Garcia keeps her grocery list in hand and sticks to it: no candy, no chips, no junk.
For her 4-year-old daughter Liliana, however, things are not so clear cut, especially when they go to pay. The treats that line the checkout lane can prove a powerful attraction.
“Every now and then she looks at the stuff, and she’ll give these hints that she wants it,” said Garcia, who lives in West Sacramento. “I have to say, ‘No, that’s way too sugary’ and distract her.”
It’s a familiar tug for shoppers tempted by the sugary offerings that surround the checkout counters at most supermarkets and convenience stores. That view is starting to change, however, at some of the country’s biggest retail chains as healthy, organic foods have become big business and officials have sounded the alarm about childhood obesity.
Raley’s, the West Sacramento-based grocer that also owns Bel Air Markets and Nob Hill Foods, began experimenting a little more than a year ago with healthy checkout lanes, which they call family-friendly lanes, at its 114 California locations. In October, the retail behemoth Target started piloting healthy checkout lanes in 30 of its stores in the Minneapolis, Denver and Dallas areas.
“It’s an evolution about customers’ interests and demands, and how those are growing and changing,” said Raley’s representative Chelsea Minor. “It was a big change for us recently to take that to the checkout stand.”
Each year, food and drink items scooped up in the checkout line bring in about $5.5 billion, or 1.5 percent of whole-store profits, according to the retail and food industry-sponsored Front-End Focus project. That equals or tops profits generated in other supermarket departments such as deli, pet care and canned vegetables.
A recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest argued that the typical food offerings at checkout lanes serve to undermine a healthy diet. Candy is the most commonly stocked item, followed by gum, energy bars, chips and cookies, according to the nonprofit group, which has lobbied across the country for laws regulating trans fats, nutrition labeling and menu calorie counts.
“Everybody has to pass through checkout,” said Jessica Almy, senior nutrition policy counsel with the center. “You have a captive audience there. It’s not fair to make people wait while staring at a wall of candy. ... It’s a really powerful space.”
But giving consumers healthier options doesn’t necessarily translate into healthy sales.
It’s not fair to make people wait while staring at a wall of candy. ... It’s a really powerful space.
Jessica Almy, senior counsel, Center for Science in the Public Interest
In Sacramento, the nonprofit Health Education Council worked to transform the checkout lane experience at La Superior Mercados, a Hispanic grocery store on Stockton Boulevard that adopted one healthy checkout lane in September. The council brought in registered dietitians to assess the store’s checkout offerings and helped managers work with snack suppliers to change the mix of products up front.
La Superior Mercados stocked the checkout lane with dried fruit, fresh produce and nuts in lieu of the usual menagerie of Doritos, Funyuns and soda.
The change won great reviews from customers, said Edith Gomez, retail program manager for the council. Shoppers were picking up apples and bananas and were relieved not to have to deal with the battles that can erupt from a child’s last-minute demand for a lollipop.
“When people are trying to pay and they see a section where there’s no candy, but there are fruits and vegetables, it’s going to be a reminder to them to think about their health,” Gomez said.
But in November, just six weeks after the new display went up, the supermarket’s headquarters called off the experiment. Luis Velazquez, store director for that location, said the produce stopped selling once the weather cooled.
“It was a little bit to do with the fact that it wouldn’t sell very well, but also because we had to be rotating the vegetables,” he said. “It had to be reset every day, and we’re pretty busy, and it takes a lot of time.”
Jackie Gray, a retail analyst with the Chicago-based Willard Bishop consulting group, said she was not surprised the effort flopped. Despite a growing push from customers for less-processed, healthier foods, she said, any stores that try to change their tune will take a financial hit, at least at first.
“The reason we’re not seeing (healthy lanes) adopted across the board is because there’s no profitability in putting yogurt up there,” she said. “It’s difficult to replenish, and it’s not where people are looking for those items.”
Still, mainstream chains need to find ways to appeal to the rising number of consumers scouring nutrition labels and beelining to the organic section if they’re going to compete with popular niche stores such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s.
Raley’s has let each of its stores push the envelope to a different degree. Some have multiple family-friendly lanes, while others have just one. In some lanes, all candy has been removed, while in others there is less candy, or organic candy instead of the highly processed variety.
“There is a growing population that’s distrustful of big food,” Grey said. “The stores that are going to win are those that strategize around that.”