Healthy Choice: The Effect of Simplified Point-of-Sale Nutritional Information on Consumer Food Choice Behavior

Hristina Dzhogleva and J. Jeffrey Inman
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Healthy Choices
Key Takeaways

​Implementing a nutrition scoring system that summarizes the comprehensive nutrition information in an easy-to-understand way improves shoppers’ food choices significantly. 

The greatest benefits of the nutrition scoring system in improving shoppers’ food choices are seen in healthier product categories in which consumers are more likely to use nutrition information as a decision-making factor.

After the introduction of the nutrition scoring system at the point of sale, shoppers also become less price sensitive and more promotion sensitive.

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Using a large-scale quasi-experiment and panel data across eight product categories for more than 500,000 members of a grocery chain’s frequent-shopper program, this research demonstrates that the recently implemented simplified point-of-sale nutrition scoring systems adopted by many grocery retailers do help consumers make healthier food choices.

“Grocery retailers have become increasingly interested in implementing health and wellness initiatives at the [point of sale] POS to help their shoppers improve their diets and overall health. In the present research, we assessed the effectiveness of one of the most prevalent initiatives implemented at a wide range of grocery stores across the country, namely, the use of a simplified nutrition scoring system at the POS…. We demonstrate that the introduction of a POS nutrition scoring system promoted healthier food choices among the grocery chain’s shoppers.”

Research

More than 20 years after the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was implemented as one of the most important policy makers’ initiatives to promote healthy eating, Americans are still struggling with their expanding waistlines, and the United States is the most obese country in the developed world. Given the NLEA’s failure in curbing the obesity epidemic, public policy makers, consumers, and marketers alike are still seeking effective ways to improve people’s food choices. For example, in-store nutrition scoring and labeling systems that communicate the nutritional value of foods in a simplified manner are one of the latest initiatives of food retailers to improve shoppers’ eating habits. However, as more retailers consider implementing a nutrition scoring system in their grocery stores, there is little hard evidence as to whether it is indeed effective in promoting healthier consumption. This was the objective of our research.

We predicted that the POS nutrition scoring systems would reduce all three types of costs consumers face in using the products’ nutritional information (collection costs – time and effort expended to acquire the information; computation costs – effort in combining the gathered information into an overall evaluation; and comprehension costs – effort necessary to understand the nutritional information). In contrast, the NLEA-mandated Nutrition Facts Panels only eliminated consumers’ collection costs but had less impact or the computation or comprehension costs. Therefore, we anticipated that implementation of POS nutrition scoring systems will lead consumers to switch to healthier alternatives.

Methods

We collaborated with a large grocery chain in the United States that began implementing the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System in over 100 stores in 2008. The NuVal system computes a summary nutrition score for each food item on the basis of the food nutrient content as well as each nutrient’s association with different health conditions (e.g., heart disease, diabetes). The NuVal scores range from 1 to 100, such that higher scores signify healthier and more nutritious foods. The grocery chain provided us the dates when the NuVal scores were introduced in each of eight product categories: frozen pizza, tomato products, soup, salad dressing, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, granola bars, and ice cream. We took advantage of this the natural quasi-experiment arising from the implementation of the POS scoring system and compared the purchases of more than 535,000 frequent shoppers in the 6-month pre-rollout period and the 6-month post-rollout period.


  

Examples of the Most Popular Simplified POS Nutrition Scoring Systems


Findings

The implementation of the NuVal nutrition scoring system significantly improved shoppers’ food choices. The effect was stronger in healthier product categories. Furthermore, we find that in the post-implementation period, shoppers became less price sensitive and more promotion sensitive. The changes in shoppers’ reactions to price changes and promotions were moderated by two category characteristics: category healthiness and within-category variability in the products’ nutrition scores. Specifically, the dampening effect on price sensitivity was greater in healthier product categories and categories with less variation in the NuVal scores across the available products in the category. Furthermore, the increase in shoppers’ promotion sensitivity is weaker in healthier product categories and those with less within-category variability in the products’ nutrition scores. Finally, a more fine-grained analysis of the post-rollout period reveals that the effects tend to weaken over time as shoppers become accustomed to the nutrition scoring system.

Implications 

Our research has important practical implications for consumers, marketers, and public policy makers. One effective way consumers can improve their food choices is to shop at grocery stores that have implemented a POS nutrition rating system. Moreover, given that grocery retailers are increasingly implementing a wide range of health and wellness initiatives at the POS, it is essential for them to know that a POS nutrition scoring system is effective in encouraging healthier consumption among their shoppers. Furthermore, it is important to highlight that the improvements in the nutrition content of shoppers’ purchases seem to be stronger in healthier product categories. Therefore, if rolling out the nutrition scores across categories over time, retailers should begin with healthier product categories. In addition, the finding that the effectiveness of the POS nutrition scoring system waned over time underscores the importance of periodically implementing in-store promotion and awareness campaigns regarding the nutrition scoring system. Finally, grocery retailers should also note that the use of a nutrition scoring system alters shoppers’ sensitivity to price and promotion such that consumers become less sensitive to price and more responsive to promotions. The present research also has important implications for food manufacturers, which might be incentivized to reformulate their products because the widespread implementation of POS nutrition scoring systems exposes unhealthy products that provide little or no benefits. Finally, our findings should be useful to public policy makers, who might consider developing and mandating a uniform nutrition scoring system or providing incentives to food retailers to license systems developed by third parties.


Full Article
Hristina Dzhogleva Nikolova and J. Jeffrey Inman (2015), "Healthy Choice: The Effect of Simplified Point-of-Sale Nutritional Information on Consumer Food Choice Behavior​," Journal of Marketing Research,  52 (6), 817-835.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1509/jmr.13​.02​70​​​​


Hristina Dzhogleva Nikolova is the Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Marketing, Carroll School of Management, Boston College.


J. Jeffrey Inman is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty and the Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing, Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh​.


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Hristina Dzhogleva and J. Jeffrey Inman
Journal of Marketing Research: Article Snapshot
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