Changing Habits is the Key to Winning Health and Wellness

I recently had the good fortune to attend and speak at the FMI Health and Wellness Conference. I always look forward to attending FMI events. They are one of the best events I’m aware of that allow all corners of the supermarket industry to share their view of the world. The new health and wellness format of this show is particularly inspiring, as it demonstrates the industry’s increasing commitment towards health and wellness. At this stage, health and wellness is fairly well understood to be a strategic initiative for supermarket. The national debate over the health care crisis has raised the awareness level of all parties: retailers, suppliers, government agencies and most importantly consumers. It is now commonly known that 1 in 3 children are projected to have type 2 diabetes, a condition that is largely preventable, by the year 2050. As the keynote speaker Dr. Katz so poignantly stated, our country is on the verge of bankrupting itself in the name of overeating; and most of it is preventable. Eighty percent of heart disease is preventable; so is ninety percent of type 2 diabetes. The secret formula? Controlling our forks and our feet. By simply paying more attention to the foods we eat and the lifestyle choices we make (read: exercise), we can eat our way out of the same problem, eating got us into.  

This can seem like a simple equation. For some of us it is, but for many it isn’t. This was underscored by another presentation at the event that I really enjoyed; Cary Silvers presentation titled ”shopping for health”.  As you may know, Cary is a regular presenter at FMI events and for good reason. Not only is he a great presenter. His presentations are always packed with the latest consumer attitudes on health, foods and how those two topics intersect in the supermarket. I’ve seen Cary’s presentations from shows past. What strikes me every time is the huge gap between consumer intent and consumer action.


Rodale 2010 "Shoppers for Health Study"

Let’s face it. Despite our best intentions it’s hard to follow through. It’s hard to change our habits. Particularly in a store setting where the amount of options can be dizzying and the amount of time we tend to give ourselves, can set us up for rushing through the shopping trip. Combine that with trying to juggle the wants of a family and our incessant sweet tooth steering us towards sugary foods and it’s no wonder we’re in the mess we’re in.

So how do we turn the tide?  And how do we take advantage of the opportunity and serve our customers? Because in the heart of every problem lies an opportunity, and in this case the opportunity is huge. Billions of dollars huge. We know the need is there. The desire is there too. The real question is execution. More specifically, it’s about changing …. drum roll please… you guessed it… habits. In a recent Duke study, researchers found that the #1 factor to changing habits wasn’t willpower. It was the enviornment we find ourselves in. It turns out that when a shopper enters our stores, the sights, smells, sounds, people, signage, information, you name it is the greatest driver of future behavior. Despite our best intentions, there is a seemingly unconscious response that is repeating a long established pattern. 

Now, let me be clear. I’m not at all absolving any responsibility on the part of the shopper. We are all responsible for our own choices. Our society affords us a wonderful set of freedoms. However, placed in the context of the question at hand, namely why is it so hard for shoppers to make healthy choices, we can start to pull at the thread of the problem.

In order for us to help shoppers make healthy choices and truly differentiate our stores as a healthy destination, we need to change the environments we create for them to shop in. In short, health and wellness is more than a campaign. It’s more than offering nutrition classes or offering links to health resources. It’s more than adding a healthy living department or providing better nutriton information at the shelf. It’s re-thinking how we go to market from top to bottom. It’s re-constructing an environment that for the most part has been constructed to get shoppers to eat more of the stuff they don’t need. And it’s walking in the shoes of our shoppers and holding their hand as they navigate the aisles of our stores and the pages of our websites for recommendations on healthy options. Most of all, it’s changing habits. The habits of our shoppers and our own habits too.

The Prince and The Polish

As a rule, I don’t tend to make a lot of friends on airplanes. People will tell you that ordinarily I’m very friendly on the ground, but in the air my goals are simple: sleep, work and read. It takes a lot for me to talk to my seat mates and recently I got a great lesson for doing just that.

It happened when the woman next to me on a packed plane just caused me too many questions for me to avoid contact. What she looked like wasn’t the cause. It was a combination of things.

First, she was reading a magazine article with a headline I must admit commanded my attention: “50 Great Things To Do With Your Breasts.” To be clear about this, the magazine was Cosmopolitan so you know it wasn’t about poultry. (By the way, I came up with feed small babies and distract grown men. What are the other 48 ideas?)

Second it was impossible to miss her new manicure in a rather strange shade of blue, a color that I thought only appeared on fingernails if you were out of oxygen.

But what really caught my attention was the book she had on her tray: The Prince by Machiavelli. Seriously, I have never seen anyone read that book without a political science class around him or her. So I had to ask why.

It turned out she was reading the book because of an argument with a co-worker over one of the “discourses” that make up the balance of the book that follow the famous essay on leadership. My seat mate, it turned out, was a chemist working on genetic splicing equipment who was flying cross-country to meet an important client. (The blue fingernails were the idea of a friend’s teen-aged daughter.)

Right there I got a powerful lesson on the complexity of consumer behavior. Think about it, when I described the woman with the Cosmo article and blue fingernails you probably had a mental picture forming. When I talked about The Prince and genetic splicing, the picture changed. Yet it was the same person.

And that’s the challenge with today’s shoppers who become so many different people in the course of one day, one shopping trip or one flight. There is no reason you can’t read Cosmo and The Prince, in fact, Machiavelli might have applauded the mix.

Today shoppers are more complex than ever. They draw a value equation out of a mix of needs and do it somewhat differently product by product. The trick for good merchants or product manufacturers is to create a narrative of value that works clearly with a sufficient number of moods.

It also made me think of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council study called Eating In that I will help present at this year’s Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show in Las Vegas. (Full disclosure: as previously noted here, I am the new research director of the council.) One part of the study details the different need states that make up mealtime decisions and tries to help us understand how the same person rushing for fast food one night becomes a gourmet cook another night. It doesn’t make sense, but it happens. And our ability to service both moods positions us better than ever to win additional sales, which is a winning strategy in any time period.

Machiavelli would likely agree. So would Cosmo.

Food Industry Perspective: Why the show must go on

Like me, you may remember times back in school when you were not completely ready for a test and the fates magically interfered. There would be an unexpected snow storm or a teacher would call in sick and suddenly we had a reprieve. It was temporary, was rarely used properly, but boy, we enjoyed it.

A reprieve is what faces us in industry today. Despite my huge bias (and long hours spent on) the now-delayed Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Future Connect conference – which was postponed last week because of concerns about the swine flu – I understand that most of the world didn’t see this as a life-changing moment. Too bad.

The delay in the event isn’t a reprieve. (Despite what one MNB letter writer suggested yesterday, this event was ready to go and the value would have been surprisingly strong.) Rather, the reprieve is the sudden lack of urgency on the problem of future leadership. Simply put, swine flu and the weak economy are not making the problem of future leadership go away. Just like that test at school, the reason for Future Connect is still coming.

Future Connect was planned to combat a very significant problem in two different ways. The problem is this: the enormous Baby Boom generation is still moving at warp speed toward the end of its working life, even if 401ks are now affectionately known as 201ks. The problem is documented throughout the economy and in nearly every industrialized nation.

Making matters worse, the enormous size of this generation – my generation – means that Boomers have a stranglehold on management positions. In the food industry that extends from the executive suite down to store level in many companies. So when Boomers start retiring in record numbers (we do everything in record numbers) the management drain will be incredible.

Future Connect aimed to address this two ways: First, to get younger people in the industry excited and educated about their jobs, possibly making them more willing to stay longer. But second, and more importantly, to help today’s managers understand the diversity and complexity of the younger generations they need to attract and retain.

And that takes me back to our discussion in this space last week about E.F. Hutton, a brokerage firm that is indelibly placed in some of our minds and completely unknown in others. (Oh, the power of a great advertisement strikes again.) We have to remind ourselves constantly that the experiences that shape our lives are very different from those that shape our co-workers, our underlings and even our bosses. Those differences impact our communication, our listening style, our work style…well, pretty much everything.

Like it or not, we live in the age of Twitter, texting and Facebook; American Idol and the Jonas Brothers; Al-Qaeda and Hugo Chavez; and broken American car companies, banks and more. Yes, the young generation produced two idiots jamming pizza cheese up their noses on YouTube, but it has already produced people like Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook while in college and now has 200 million passionate followers. (Boomers should remember – we produced disco and streaking along with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Yo-Yo Ma.)

We live in a time where lots of people speak different languages and when job hopping is no longer seen as negative. In short, it’s an era of complexity. You can get mad at it or learn to deal; I’m hoping you choose the latter.

So yes, Future Connect was delayed because of the swine flu (an absolutely correct call, by the way.) But the clock is still ticking on Boomer retirements, which means the problem – and the need for action – still linger. Are you going to start studying or pull the covers back over your head?

Editor’s Note: Michael Sansolo, Aisle7 board member, Retail Food Industry Consultant and former SVP of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), has a weekly column on MorningNewsBeat called Sansolo Speaks. You can read today’s news here MorningNewsBeat or reach Michael direct at