As new figures reveal record highs in childhood obesity and the government questions whether to roll out more red tape around unhealthy products, retailers are questioning whether they are doing enough to promote healthy eating to children

The Department of Health and Social Care is aiming to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and has created a Childhood Obesity Strategy with proposals which, if implemented, would have a massive impact on c-store retailers. The most dramatic proposals for c-stores include restricting the display and promotion of “unhealthy” food and drink products at checkouts and in queuing areas, and limiting promotions. What’s more, with Public Health England reporting just last month that levels of severe obesity in children aged 10 to 11 years have reached the highest point since records began, the spotlight on how healthy products are merchandised is likely to intesify.

Unsurprisingly, the proposals have not been well received by retailers. Anita Nye, manager of Eldred Drive Stores, in Orpington, has always been a keen advocate of ensuring children have healthy options, especially as there are two primary schools near her store. However she feels that some of the proposals in discussion are starting to take things too far.

“It’s become very nanny state now. As always, the government brings new rules into place and it’s up to retailers to implement their ideas and we are the ones who have to explain everything to the shoppers. I also get the impression that the government is usually thinking about supermarkets when they bring in new legislation and don’t tend to think about small, independent retailers who don’t have much space to change the way things are merchandised.”

Despite this, Anita is ensuring she stays ahead of any more upcoming legislation by removing children’s sweets from her counter.

“We used to sell chocolate lollipops at the counter and they sold really well there but I can see this being outlawed soon enough so I thought we should take some initiative.”

But removing high fat and sugar products from the checkout would be nigh-on impossible for many retailers, not only due to reduced impulse sales, but also due to increased risk of theft.

“We have so many children flooding through the store at certain times of the day and if all our confectionery was at the back of the store I don’t know how much would go walking out in pockets,” says Scott Graham, owner of McLeish Inverurie, in Scotland.

If laws were brought in to stop merchandising confectionery at tills, Scott says the manufacturers and the small newsagents would be greatly impacted.

“For small CTNs, this would pose an even larger problem as they cover their counters in confectionery. It would be very difficult for retailers and very difficult to police.”

Nigel Dowdney, co-owner of Earlham Shopper & Stalham Shopper, in Norfolk, has already seen a marked change in the snacks people buy their children, with reduced sales in chocolate bars and crisps, and increased sales in cereal bars and popcorn. He thinks the government is behind the times and therefore these proposals are unnecessary, adding that this was much the case with the soft drinks sugar tax.

“Raising prices of sugary soft drinks was a bit of a sledge hammer to break a nut as far as I’m concerned. People were already avoiding sugary drinks before the tax came in and the legislation hasn’t made any change to sales.”

Scott isn’t convinced that the sugar tax will automatically change shopper buying habits either. However, he admits the tax did some good in that many suppliers reformulated their drinks so there are now many more low sugar options.

“I would say the sugar tax did work to a degree but you can’t impose something like that on chocolate bars where there are no diet options available.”

Rather than moving unhealthy products away from the checkout, Scott thinks that adding healthy options is the way forward. “The important thing is to provide choice so whilst we have some confectionery NPD in dump bins at the counter, we also have fruit at the counter,” he says.

Nigel has also made an effort to promote better eating. He offers healthy lunchboxes to children within his chilled section. These include sandwiches made by a local bakery with products sourced locally, plus a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. Nigel says these sell to children and parents on their morning run to school as well as their home run.

Donna Mullan, of Mullan’s Spar in Armagh, in N. Ireland, thinks crisp and confectionery manufacturers need to take more responsibility for the products they are bringing to market as she’s noticed people choosing larger formats more frequently in their search for value.

“If you can get a single chocolate bar for 80p or a large one for £1 then of course you are going to buy the large one, and then children will eat the whole thing! It’s a false economy. I see it with crisps as well, they’re always bringing out £1 sharing bags now and people buy those instead of a single pack.

“It’s very tough, as a mother I want to do what’s right for the children but as retailers we are always encouraged to stock these products and give certain unhealthy products double and even triple facings with all the different formats and flavours available. We have four metres devoted to individual chocolate bars and I’ve always thought it’s a bit much! We are looking at reducing that.”

Anita is also looking at the in-store space to help her customers access healthy foods more easily. She has created a new healthy snacks area next to the confectionery aisle to support Public Health England’s “100 calorie snacks, two a day max” adverts.

“With all the press around sugar and obesity we’ve looked at the snacks we have on offer. We now have a dedicated shelf for all snacks that come in at under 100 calories. They kept playing that advert on the TV so I figured there might be a sales opportunity there. I was planning to put up some POS making it clear all those snacks are under 100 calories but it’s already obvious they are all healthier and lower calorie options.”

Top-selling products in Anita’s healthy snacks range are the Kiddylicious rice cakes, wafers, veggie straws and sweetcorn rings.

Elsewhere in the store, she has made a point of making room for healthy products. She says Del Monte carrot sticks and hummus and fruit snack packs are also popular additions to her food-to-go offering.

She points out that what’s in fashion can change quite quickly, adding that children tend to see each other with certain foods in their lunchbox and then want that themselves, which could mean retailers will find different products will sell incredibly well during different times.

What’s more, Anita has been giving away free fruit to children three days of the week for the last few years. She says it’s very easy to do, she simply places the fruit in a wicker basket and encourages children to take a piece from it.

Donna has also taken some steps to encourage children to adopt healthier eating habits. “I merchandise pots of fruit at children’s level when they enter the store and I see that this helps parents when they come to walk passed confectionery in the final aisle as the children will be eating the fruit or holding the pot and so are distracted.”

Richard Dance, franchisee for Welcome Co-op, says the healthy and free-from sections in his stores have all been expanded over time as these have become higher on shoppers’ agendas.

But he has also taken his healthy eating message outside the store as he recently donated £600 to a local infant school for them to develop their kitchen so they can hold cooking classes to help the children develop their culinary skills.

“We have also given them vouchers to use at the store to buy provisions for their cooking projects. We thought this would be a good idea as culinary skills seem to be slipping away these days and these classes will help them learn what goes into the food they eat and what ingredients are healthy.”

While retailers clearly have a responsibility to provide healthy options, Anita feels that there is no point in forcing the issue as really it is down to parents to decide.

“The parents should know what their child has done and eaten in a day and know whether it’s OK for them to have a treat, so it shouldn’t be our responsibility to control what they can eat.

“I think as soon as parents are told ‘you can’t feed your child that’, it gets their back up a bit. It’s important to promote the healthy offering but ensure it doesn’t come across as judgemental or bossy.”

Tips to help sell healthier produce

The Association of Convenience Stores has worked with Peas Please on the production of a Veg Toolkit to help retailers sell more healthy products in stores. Advice includes:

Ensure all main course suggestion advertisements include at least two portions of veg

Make a daily mention of veg on social media channels

Site vegetables in higher footfall areas

Introduce new and improved signage for fruit and veg in store

Offer link save promotions for veg lines with ambient cooking sauces and spices to give customers inspiration

Ensure meal deals always include both a salad and vegetable option as the side dish

The full toolkit is available at:

The Childhood obesity strategy

Poor diet is responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year, and has the most significant impact on the NHS budget, costing £6bn a year.

The Department of Health’s and Social Care’s Childhood Obesity Strategy proposes regulations on:

Ensuring sales promotions favour healthy options, limiting unhealthy promotions, including prohibiting marketing communications that appeal to children and young people

Preventing marketing of unhealthy food and drink products in schools

Ensuring mandatory school food standards apply to all academy schools and free schools

Extending the provision of free fruit and vegetable schemes.

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) has responded to the publication of the strategy, calling on the government to ensure that any new regulations are evidence-based and do not unfairly target small retailers over their larger counterparts.

ACS chief executive James Lowman says: “The convenience sector is keen to work with the Department of Health and Social Care on the delivery of their new strategy. We understand that convenience stores do have a role to play in increasing access to healthy foods and we will continue to engage with members about how they can increase and promote healthier ranges in store.

“We have concerns about any measure that would restrict where retailers are allowed to display products, as many of our members operate very small stores where layout changes would be difficult and costly.”

The strategy also includes plans to consult on a mandatory age restriction for the sale of energy drinks. ACS research has shown that already over half of independent retailers do not sell energy drinks to under-16s.