Retail managers constantly juggle consumer demand for variety, shelf space, and profits. Gluten free products can seem like another demand. Instead, it is a growing segment. When managed properly, a gluten free section can build consumer loyalty and profits.
Excluding non-medical shoppers, seven of 100 shoppers are looking for gluten free. Industry growth is consistently 10 to 12 per cent in Canada and has 43 per cent household penetration in the United States. That is big business.
Jerry Bigam, co-owner of Kinnikinnick Foods Inc. says. “Consumers of gluten free are no longer just diagnosed celiacs. Many are gluten intolerant and mainstream buyers.” This can increase incremental sales.
“Shoppers who eat gluten free eat out much less frequently, so the average bill is likely to be higher,” says Sue Newell of the Canadian Celiac Association. “People with celiac and gluten sensitivity shop for themselves and their families. Serving gluten free options leads to a full-family shopper.”
According to The Gluten Free Agency 71 per cent of shoppers prefer to purchase gluten free items at the same store as they shop for family groceries. “Time runs short for most shoppers. A store with a good gluten free section and good groceries will win over shopping at two stores.” Newell said.
New products account for about one quarter of all sales. The Gluten Free Agency indicates almost 60 per cent of gluten free consumers have tried ten or more new products in the past year. Snack categories dominate. “Our goal is to provide the same range of products as available in conventional products. Brands have to grow.” agrees Bigam.
“Consumers and retailers are constantly looking for added innovation in the category,” added Carlo Facchin, CEO of Prairie Harvest Canada Ltd.
Another driver of sales is the quality of gluten free offerings. Consumers are pushing for improvements. “The quality is so much better with new soft quality of some goods. In a blind taste test it is becoming difficult to tell which is conventional and which is gluten free,” Bigam noted.
Dr. Anne Lee, professionals manager with Dr. Schar USA, agreed stating that “Consumers expect not only gluten free, but good gluten free.” And they expect organic offerings as well.
“We listened to feedback from our customers over the years that there was a growing demand for quality gluten free products. We have focused all of our gluten free products in the organic category,” Facchin indicated.
Addressing the challenges of the gluten free segment is the difference between profits walking in and lost customers walking out. Planning is essential to success.
“I would suggest taking guidance from a reliable source so there is a defendable set of decisions that indicate where something should be shelved,” said
Newell. “ The other thing is to take grocery sorting seriously.”
As the products move closer to conventional products in taste, texture and selection, the temp- tation is to merchandise them throughout the store. This can be dan- gerous for the gluten free consumer because of unintentional cross con- tamination. If consumers feel unsafe, they won’t trust the store and that will cost sales.
“Identifying which products are safe can be very frustrating,” says Newell. “If there is any chance of contamination through cross contact, many consumers will not buy a product rather than take the risk.”
Lee adds that cross presentation can be done effectively. “A dedicated display of buns with the meat section, for example, or a free standing pasta display in the pasta section.” she suggests.
Easy to Find, Easy to Buy
Retailers should point people to the section and make it easy to find. “If it is clearly labeled and easy to find, shoppers will pick it up. Clear labels and sections make it easier to buy,” says Lee.
Keeping the shelves stocked is of paramount concern. Newell indicates that consumers switch stores because of frequent out of stock situations. Yet turnover rates can be tough to get a handle on.
“Empty shelves are a real problem. There is a scooping phenomenon that happens with gluten free because of availability. The only way to avoid it is to stock consistently.” advises Bigam. “Stores are trying to give good service, but it is hard to manage. Electronic sales records might help.”
Extraordinary space is not needed for a successful gluten free section. “It doesn’t need to be enormous. Focus on the clean ingredient, quality products and stock a couple of kinds of each item like grain, breads, crackers and cookies in addition to the frozen products.” Lee suggests. Hosting store tours or offering meeting space for groups builds consumer confidence in stores as partners.
Gluten free sections have challenges. However, at 10 to 12 per cent growth, ignoring this demographic could cost retailers a bundle. Dedicated sections that are readily identified and well stocked will ensure that retailers not only capture, but retain, the business of a growing segment of the population.