Prof Paul Dobson led a three-year project that focused on consumer behaviour towards food and its impact on overeating and food waste. The study examined the role of food retailers and whether the pricing techniques they use contribute to the excessive consumption of unhealthy food that causes obesity and overbuying, for example through multi-buy offers such as ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGOF), ‘three for the price of two’, and price discounts.
It follows a number of initiatives announced last week by supermarkets as part of the Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, an on-going scheme to get the food industry involved in promoting healthy eating. Examples included improving accessibility to fruit and vegetables and replacing confectionery at till displays with more nutritious foods.
Prof Dobson will present findings from the study at a UEA London Lecture tonight, entitled The lure of supermarket special offers: a healthy choice for consumers? The project, The Impact of Retail Pricing on Overeating and Food Waste, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Special offers are worth more than £50bn in sales to supermarkets and account for over a third of all consumer spending. The research analysed supermarket price promotions and whether these are biased in favour of food products high in fat, sugar and/or salt.
Prof Dobson, head of Norwich Business School at UEA, said “I welcome the government’s Responsibility Deal and the pledges that supermarkets have so far made to promote healthy eating, but what is required is a comprehensive move away from price promoting unhealthy foods rather than token gestures used for marketing spin.
“It is simply irresponsible for supermarkets to overly promote foods with high sugar and fat content. The food industry must play a much greater role in promoting healthy diets. Food producers can do more by reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods, while food retailers can ensure that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers and that they practice responsible marketing. Responsibility lies with both retailers and producers, otherwise regulation might be needed.”
The research team, which also included Prof Eitan Gerstner of Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) and Dr Jonathan Seaton at Loughborough University, analysed weekly price and nutrition data of a full range of food and drinks products sold over a year by four UK supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Ocado.
They found a bias towards sugary products for price promotions and that straight price discounts are on average more skewed towards unhealthy products. Highly prominent deals, in particular BOGOF offers, tend to be distinctly skewed towards unhealthy ‘red traffic light’ products high in fat, sugar and salt. Special offers with appealing high discounts tended to be slanted towards more unhealthy products, especially those with high sugar content. However, multi-buys were on average more biased towards healthier items.
On average just over 6000 food items with nutrition data from across the four supermarkets were sampled each week from August 2010 to August 2011. Over the year Tesco had the highest recorded percentage of items on promotion with 28 per cent, followed by Asda (24), Sainsbury (19) and Ocado (10). ‘Two for …’ multi-buy offers were the most widely used form of promotion, making up around half of all the special offers.
Prof Dobson, professor of business strategy and public policy, added: “While price promotions can offer savings for consumers they may not be so good for our waistlines and health. With almost a quarter of the population classed as obese, overeating and food waste are serious concerns for modern society.
“There is a healthy choice of supermarket offers available but shoppers need to check carefully what they buy. Hunt for bargains but check ingredients and fill baskets for a balanced diet, and buy only what is needed. This particularly applies for very prominent offers, which can appear very tempting.”
Prof Dobson’s lecture will also examine the obesity problem, food purchasing and consumption in the UK, as well as the concerns over price promotions and trends in promotions and shopping behaviour.
The lecture takes place at UEA London, 102 Middlesex Street, London E1 7EZ. The event starts at 6.30pm and is free to attend but places need to be booked in advance. Email [email protected], call 01603 593815 or visit www.uea.ac.uk/alumni to register online.