Driving the smart use of consumer data in supermarkets

A project led by the Consumer Data Research Centre has helped major food retailers make changes that enable healthier and more sustainable diets for customers.

Changing consumer eating habits to follow the government’s Eatwell Guide would increase average life expectancy by helping to prevent diet-related diseases. However, only 1% of the UK population currently eats a diet that reflects government dietary guidelines.

Research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), led by the University of Leeds, is helping shape buying behaviour. It is also encouraging people to make healthier and more sustainable food choices in their supermarket shop.

The team, led by Professor Michelle Morris, collaborated with major retailers to analyse their data, for example from shopping transactions and loyalty cards, and test interventions aimed at promoting healthy and sustainable diets.

Their insights have changed how supermarkets are promoting products to customers and how they are delivering their services. This has helped the food industry make changes that have improved access to healthy foods in supermarkets across the UK.

Credit: Economic and Social Research Council

Video transcript and on-screen captions are available by watching on YouTube.

About the project

Professor Michelle Morris, with CDRC colleagues Dr Victoria Jenneson, Dr Francesca Pontin, Dr Emily Ennis and Dr Stephen Clark, worked with major supermarkets to analyse shopping data and explore purchasing patterns. She explains:

Traditionally, people’s dietary habits have been recorded through surveys reporting what they have eaten, but this provided limited data to inform national policies. Retailers were reluctant to share more valuable data about shopping patterns due to commercial sensitivities. This project enabled us to build industry relationships and gain access to data sources, such as loyalty cards.

The research started in 2017 with a single supermarket partner. In 2020, the team was invited to collaborate with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), an organisation working with the food industry to deliver social impact. IGD’s Industry Nutrition Strategy group members represent more than 11,500 UK food stores, and account for over 90% of take-home food sales.

The partnership enabled the researchers to run a series of in-store and online behaviour change trials with four UK food retailers. These trials tested a range of interventions aimed at improving the public’s access to healthy and sustainable diets.

Professor Morris says:

We were able to work with our supermarket partners to go into stores and change the environment, such as experimenting with signposting, product placement and incentivisation. We then analysed transaction records to understand which changes positively impacted purchasing patterns.

IGD then used their platform and networks to share the research findings and team’s insights more broadly with the sector and drive further action.

Impact of the project

Insights from the research have helped food retailers introduce changes that encourage people to make healthier and more sustainable shopping choices, including:

  • using price to incentivise customers to eat more fruit and vegetables
  • increasing the variety of meat-free products
  • extending access to support for those most in need

The team has robust data governance and ethical data use. This reputation has made retailers feel confident in both sharing insights and best practice across the sector and advocating for other retailers to be part of the collaboration.

The project has also contributed to growing capacity for health analytics within the sector, says Dr Ennis:

Our ways of working have demonstrated to the food retail sector the value of academic expertise in approaching a problem and analysing data, and shown academic researchers the value of industry experience. This exchange of skills and knowledge has allowed us to effectively upskill the data and nutrition workforce.

Informing retail strategies

The team’s insights have benefited individual food retailers by delivering evidence-based research about what works and, crucially, what doesn’t when it comes to encouraging consumer healthy behaviours. This has changed how and what products are available from retailers, as well as enabling retailers to make informed cost-benefit analyses and economic decisions around how best to support their customers.

A trial changing the placement of meat alternatives at Asda, for example, resulted in a decrease in sales. The company has committed to expanding their vegan range by approximately 50% and are exploring which interventions will influence shoppers to make more meat-free choices.

Beth Fowler, Nutrition and Health Strategy Manager at Asda, says:

Our collaboration with Professor Morris and the Consumer Data Research Centre team has enabled Asda to test and understand the impact of merchandising on consumer food choice, in a real-world supermarket setting. Their expert insights were used to scope, shape, implement and evaluate the trial.

Using the data and results from the trials we ran with Professor Morris’ team we have been able to influence decision-making within the business to ensure our Plant Based range of alternatives to meat are accessible for customers.

Shifting shopping patterns

The introduction of interventions that shift shopping patterns towards healthier diets means consumers have also benefited from the team’s research.

The work led to sector wide transformations, providing insights to retailers on the effectiveness of behaviour-change trials that encourage healthy and sustainable diets, particularly for communities most in need.

For example, the team analysed how effective the Sainsbury’s Healthy Start voucher top-up scheme had been in supporting pregnant women and children with access to healthy nutrition. Analysis showed that shoppers increased the number of fruit and vegetables in their baskets by an average of 13 more portions and bought more products in line with the Eatwell Guide.

Sainsbury’s used these findings to make a business case to extend their top-up coupons for the Healthy Start voucher scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland for a further six months in 2022 to 2023. This meant up to half a million pregnant people and young families were eligible for this benefit.

Find out more

Consumer Data Research Centre

The ESRC CDRC was established in 2014 with funding from ESRC and brings together world-class researchers from:

  • University of Leeds
  • University College London
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Oxford

The centre leads academic engagement between industry and the social sciences and utilises consumer data for academic research purposes. The centre provides unique insight into a diverse range of societal and economic challenges, in collaboration with a wide range of consumer data providers.

Smart Data Research UK is unlocking the power of new forms of data for research and innovation that solves social and economic challenges.

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