Trends in the Supermarket (podcast)

March 3, 2017   /

Nutrition411 Managing Editor Michelle LaPlante spoke with Phil Lempert from in April 2016 about his thoughts on upcoming trends that he's seeing in the supermarket.


Click here to listen to the podcast


Transcript (recorded April 1, 2016):

Nutrition411: Hi, we’re here today talking to Phil Lempert from SupermarketGuru®. Many of you probably are already familiar with his website that has product reviews and all the information you can use for supermarket information. Today, we’re going to talk about trends in the supermarket and what’s coming up for 2016. Phil, what are you starting to see trend-wise in the supermarket business?

PL: Well, first of all 2016 is probably the most shocking year ever for supermarkets. That typical 40,000-50,000 square foot store is a dinosaur. We’re seeing the entire place change. We’re seeing smaller stores like Aldi and Leedel with very, very, smaller offerings, mostly private label. We’re seeing the whole grocer on trend, whether it’s from Mariano’s, or some ShopRites, or Hy-Vee really take the market by storm. What the supermarket industry has done is finally woken up to the fact that restaurants have been stealing a lot of money from them and a lot of food from them.

So, the biggest trend that we’re seeing is consolidation, more stores going out of business, more stores being bought out by other chains, and a lot of new upstarts that are doing some pretty exciting things. 

Nutrition411: What are you seeing from some of the upstarts? What kind of new concepts are they bringing to the market?

PL: Well, the biggest one right now is Aldi. Aldi also owns Trader Joe’s, and Aldi is a small store, typically about 15,000 square feet. They have 90% of their own exclusive brands, so you’re not going to see a lot of national brands there. And typically, if you take your shopping list that you go to a traditional supermarket to and shop at Aldi, you’re going to save close to 50%. Now, you’re not giving up anything, and the reason for that is that not only is it their own brands, but their foods keep on winning awards globally for quality. So we’ve got that going on.

We have all-vegan supermarkets—Veganz opening up in Portland. We’ve got meal box solutions. It’s just changing rapidly and it’s being led by that millennial generation who grew up with a mobile device, who doesn’t see any difference between stores. In fact, a recent survey came out that asked millennials what their top-ten food brands were and four out of those ten were store brands. They don’t see any difference between store brands and national brands. 

Nutrition411: Yeah. On a personal note, we just tried AmazonFresh and that’s a whole, [it] introduces a whole new dynamic to the supermarket shopping experience. Any thoughts on that?

PL: Absolutely. And AmazonFresh is probably one of the late-comers to it. If you take a look at what’s going on, Instacart I think has a really interesting model where you can order from three, four, five, six different stores, have it delivered in an hour, number one, right from your mobile phone. What Uber is doing with UberEATS is shocking and fabulous and I wish I would have thought of it. And what you can now do is order lunch, or dinner, or brunch, or a late night snack and have it delivered in ten minutes—and usually their offerings are $10-12. So, we’re seeing a lot of progress being made in delivery, and we’re also seeing surveys that show that people are willing to pay for delivery, which is something that supermarkets never thought that they’d be able to do. And as a result of that, it’s changing the dynamic. People are now shopping 24/7 for food. They’re not going to a supermarket once a week or twice a week. They’re buying food twice a day and then having it delivered to them whether it’s at the office, whether it’s at home, or even stopping at a store and picking it up on the way home. 

Nutrtion411: How do you think that translates to dietitians working with their clients? Do you see them sitting down and making a shopping list and maybe ordering the food online together even?

PL: Absolutely. We formed the Retail Dietitians’ Business Alliance oh, probably now four or five years ago, and we have over 1,900 members, 1,900 retail dietitians who are either full- time or part-time. And they’re doing things that are dramatic. In the stores, they’re working with buyers. They’re not just doing store tours, which are very important, but they’re doing consultations such as you’re describing, sitting down with people. Also, there are some dietitians that have built exercise rooms next to their offices so they conduct daily exercise sessions. We’re seeing the retail dietitian really progress to unheard-of heights in the retail environment and frankly, I’m looking forward to the day that we’ve got a retail dietitian as the CEO of a supermarket chain.

Nutrition411: Wouldn’t that be great? I’m sure a lot of dietitians would love that. Oftentimes I think dietitians are the only people who know the science behind the food.

PL: You’re exactly right, which is why, it’s not only the science behind the food; they’re the only scientist in the store. So, when you look at food safety issues, when you look at nutrition issues, this is the go-to person, and for those retail dietitians who are really embraced by their banners, they’re going to go far, and it’s not just limited to if I’ve got a salt problem showing me which foods or how to read salt labels. This is a much bigger situation where retail dietitians are now getting involved in advertising, they’re getting involved in the selection of foods and, in fact, many of them even have 10 x 12-foot sections outside their offices in the store where they’re curating certain foods and they’re working again within their organization to have this. But one ShopRite might have a different curation than another ShopRite that’s ten miles away and it’s all based on the needs of those shoppers in those geographies.

Nutrition411: Right. What are you seeing from some of the manufacturers? What are they bringing to market? Last fall I think we saw pulses as being the touted big thing are some of the things I’ve seen personally. But what are you seeing from some of the manufacturers out there?

PL: I’m seeing a lot of confusion but a lot of good, so let me start with the good. We’ve tried for many, many years to get food companies to reformulate, to get rid of artificial colors and flavors and so on, and all of a sudden over the past 12 months they’re doing it. You know, who would have ever thought if we were talking a year ago and you told me that Fruit Loops would get rid of their iridescent colors, or Lucky Charms would, I would just laugh hysterically. Well, all these cereal companies are doing it. Campbell’s Soup led the charge by labeling genetically modified ingredients on their labels. We’re seeing more companies doing that, breaking from the industry ranks and saying, “Okay, you know, the consumer has told us loud and clear some of the things that they want. We’re going to give it to them.” And as a result of giving it to them, guess what? Their sales go up. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese taking out the artificial colors, again I’m sure there are some people in Kraft’s headquarters that shook their head and just said, “This is, this is the demise.” Their sales are going up and that’s what it, that’s what this is all about. Listening to the consumer, what they want, what they don’t want, and understanding that maybe the reason for artificial colors back in 1960 doesn’t exist today. We think of food very differently. We’ve got stores selling “ugly” fruit at a discount. Every apple is not going to be perfect and that’s okay to consumers.

Nutrition411: Right, but there are some pitfalls to that. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows sometimes for these ingredients and you get rid of the preservatives and you have problems like Chipotle, or Dole with their salad being recalled. What are you, what can dietitians help consumers understand that something’s shelf life, for example, has changed?

PL: Well, I think the dietitians have to help both consumers and the retailers and their buyers, and really communicate what changes are important, and what changes may put customers at risk. If we look at Chipotle, and that’s a great example, Chipotle with their all-natural, local, hype didn’t have the proper techniques in place when it came to food safety. They just didn’t. You know, if you go to McDonald’s, you’re not going to see these same problems with McDonald’s because they have really proper procedures in place. They’re using programs like ServSafe and just—it’s bulletproof when it comes to food safety.

If we look at other products, and you mentioned the recall of spinach, I mean, the problem is, and this is what a dietitian needs to tell consumers, is that just because something might be organic doesn’t mean that it’s better in certain ways. And let me explain that. You know, what science has shown is that organics are no different nutritionally than their conventional counterparts. What science has also shown is if produce, for example, is grown locally that means it’s in the ground longer. It’s on the tree longer. It has better taste, better flavor, and better nutrients. So if you’ve got a choice between local and organic, go local. The problem is that a lot of organic producers use manure as a fertilizer. It’s allowed by the USDA certification. So as we’re seeing sprouts and we’re seeing different lettuces being recalled with E.coli, 99% of the time it goes back to one point: that manure was used as a fertilizer in a nearby field. So, we’ve got to be smart about food safety and frankly, we just did a segment on Dr. Oz and we went undercover and we looked at the deli departments in certain supermarkets. We actually did swab tests. We actually looked at the stainless steel. We found that the people behind the counter weren’t changing gloves, weren’t wiping down counters. We looked at filthy slicing machines. I mean, we’ve got to stop this, and as a consumer, if somebody isn’t going to change their gloves for your order, go someplace else. And especially when it comes to people with food allergies where cross-contamination could be deadly, if we’re not seeing supermarkets, and this should be led by dietitians, creating allergy-free zones within the deli or within the stores and so on, and educating again both the retail operator, as well as the consumer, we’re going to have some serious problems. Food allergies are on the rise, not the decline. 

Nutrition411: Right, right. What advice would you give to a dietitian who may not be a retail dietitian? How can they help maybe influence their local supermarket, or just help make it a better place?

PL: Well, first I would recommend trying to work with the retailer and for them. It’s a good job. It really is. And versus just being a clinician, the pay is better, you’ve got, you know, you’ve got a career path. So, first if you’re interested in retail get out there, make some contacts with your local retailer. If we can help,, we’ve got a section right on the website where you can post, you know, [a] job, looking for a job, and retailers post job opportunities there.

If you don’t want to do that, if you want to take your own route, you’ve got to meet with that store director first. You’ve got to see what their programs are, what they’re looking for. They might well be a smaller retailer, like an IGA, who just wants to have a retail dietitian coming in once a week with posted hours to help. And the way that a retail dietitian needs to communicate is frankly, starting off with, “This is going to increase your customer base. This is going to increase your sales. You’re going to have a better relationship with shoppers,” because frankly, and I hate to say this, the store manager doesn’t care if his shoppers are healthy or not. You know, you’ve got to point out to him that if you’ve got a healthy shopper, they’re going to live longer which means you’re going to have that shopper longer. For retailers, it’s all about ROI and really making sure that they understand what you bring to the party is not just for the consumers but is going to help their bottom line. 

Nutrition411: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about organic products. When making a choice on which are the most important organic products to buy, which product, which vegetables, for example, matter? Which, do you know what I’m saying? I mean, which ones are the most important to really think about organic?

PL: Well again, you’ve got to think about why you’re buying organic. There is a bunch of reasons. You could be buying organic because you want to avoid genetically modified ingredients, because that’s the USDA certification. You might want to buy organics because of pesticides, but keep in mind that there are over 100 pesticides that you can use on organics.

So, rule of thumb for me when I’m buying produce is I’ll buy organics for anything that is very porous, like raspberries. That, to me, is a produce item that can really absorb pesticides, whether it’s from the organic field or other fields that are nearby. But I would never buy an organic banana, for example, because nothing is going to get through that skin. So really think in terms of that.

But also when it comes to product, wash your produce. I don’t care whether it’s organic or non-organic, if it’s triple washed or not. Get some of these organic washes. My favorite one is Fit, which is actually an organic product that’s out there that is made from citrus. There’s no soap in it. There are no chemicals in it, and that’s just another way to make sure that you’re washing off some of the residue.

And keep in mind when we look at the supply chain, by the time an apple is picked, and then stored for a year in cold storage, and then shipped on a truck to the store, and then put out there, there are a lot of touchpoints where whether it’s people’s hands, whether it’s airborne diseases, whatever, it can be affected. So we’ve got a responsibility as consumers, and I believe that retail dietitians should also make sure that they’re instructing their customers about how to wash produce to just prevent any cross contamination, or any bacteria. 

Nutrion411: Okay. Thank you. Now, this is a big issue and controversial, but what’s your, what are your thoughts on GMOs? Should we be looking for GMO-free produce in the grocery store? Should we be concerned? What’s your take on it?

PL: GMO is a very personal issue for people. It is not a science issue. I’ve looked and studied GMO reports for well over a decade and the science, whether it’s in the US or in other countries, shows that there is no harm by consuming GMOs. Having said that, it’s an emotional issue for a lot of people. The non-GMO Project and the USDA Certified Organic seal are the only two ways right now that we can tell if a product has GMOs. There are very few crops that have GMOs. But when we look at some of the crops, like corn and soy, that are pervasive in a lot of ingredients in a lot of packaged foods, that’s where the issue gets really complicated.

I think the GMO has a place. I don’t think the GMO has a place in salmon, for example. We’ve just recently seen a class action suit against the government by approving GE salmon. I don’t think that that’s where we should be going, but if you look at the greening situation in citrus, which is down in Florida and in California, and is wiping out oranges and grapefruits and lemons and limes, what they’ve had as an experiment, as a test for three years so far, and I think it still has to run another one or two years, is they’ve been able to take a gene out of spinach, fresh spinach, and put it, insert it into a citrus tree that already has greening and it stops the greening. So, and again, no harm, no change in taste, nothing. If, in fact, this test proves positive and is approved by the USDA, that is a perfect use for genetic engineering. Otherwise, it means that we’re not going to be able to grow any citrus here. All of our citrus is going to come from either Mexico or Brazil. Most of our orange juice from concentrate now comes from Brazil anyway and consumers don’t know that. And, you know, if you give, and we did a taste test on this, you know, years ago, if you give people Florida orange juice, California orange juice, and Brazilian orange juice, they can tell the difference.

So, I think the use of genetic engineering is very important and can be very helpful. It should not be directed as better yields for the farmer, and that’s the conversation that we’ve heard for years. What it should be, as I gave the example of citrus greening as a cure for that, it should be to be able to raise different crops in areas that don’t have enough water, or don’t have the right soil makeup, or whatever because we still have a lot of people in this country starving to death because they can’t grow their food.
So I think the conversation about GMOs needs to change. We need to understand the science more and frankly, the industry needs to understand that what we want to hear about are the benefits for us and for other people, not just making more money for the farmer or the seed companies.

Nutrition411: Thank you, Phil. And with that, I will say thank you for joining us on Nutrition411 today, and we’ll talk again soon. Thank you.

PL: Thank you so much.