Thursday 12 March 2015

Who’s opting out of responsibility? Battle of the checkouts

Posted by Mel Wakeman

Let's make Britain healthier. Please remove all junk from all tills and make EVERY store take responsibility

This was the message that was shared by all the supporters of our Thunderclap campaign on Monday 9th March. The Children’s Food Trust, British Dental Association, British Dietetic Association, Action on Sugar and Faculty for Public Health signed up alongside more than 100 other advocates asking stores to get rid of the junk food they display and promote at their checkouts. Our social reach exceeded 94,500 which is hugely encouraging and supports the idea that much of the public would welcome and benefit from such a move.

Courtesy of
I am not ignoring the fact that when it comes to the power of pestering from children, parents have a responsibility to set boundaries and deal with whining requests for sweets and treats. I also appreciate that the public are entitled to choice but my point is that if we want to make healthier choices, they should be the easiest of choices. Why not promote fresh fruit and low fat, salt and sugar options at the tills? In my mind if you want to buy junk, then walk to the dedicated aisle; that is your decision and your responsibility. We have been advised to reduce our sugar intake (the WHO released new guidelines last week) and many will need support to do this; we must have an enabling environment that promotes positive health behaviour change rather than be constantly tempted and encouraged to pick up sugar rich and energy dense foods.

In our first blog we named and shamed the leading stores that have yet to step up to the plate: Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Asda, Sainsbury's Local, Iceland Foods and WHSmith. I have since written to all these stores asking them to adopt a blanket policy to remove all junk from all their tills. In each letter I stated that not doing this undermined any company values and intentions to be responsible for the products they sell. They are essentially sending out mixed messages concerning their company priorities (i.e. profits vs health) and most importantly they are undermining customer efforts to make healthier choices. I mentioned that evidence now suggests we are more likely to choose unhealthy products when impulse buying and that highly processed foods may be linked to addictive eating. These factors all exacerbate the negative impact junk food has on our health.

The fact that Tesco, Lidl and Aldi have most recently committed to junk free checkouts is evidence enough that it can be done. Implying healthier checkouts can't be done and that customers don’t want them says these stores haven't tried hard enough! Many may want to have their cake and eat it but this is really not the way forward to better health. Tesco for example only display food items that contribute one of our five a day, have no ‘red’ traffic light ratings, and are deemed by the Department of Health to be a ‘healthier snack’. This approach makes a lot of sense to me, they still offer choice so what’s the problem?!

So let’s go store by store and examine what I learnt about their company values and marketing policies. I checked out what they are currently doing in terms of in-store health initiatives and questioned why they did not acknowledge their role in supporting customers in making healthier choices.

1. My first letter went to the CEO of Marks and Spencer.

I commended their 22 pledges on the Government’s responsibility deal; they provide calorie controlled options as part of their ‘Calorie Reduction Plan’ and they have developed a ‘Well-being Week’ and ‘Veg Pledge’ but they could do so much more as part of their ‘Plan A’ initiative to promote healthy living.

Their initial response to my letter was read with some amusement. It contained this statement:

“From May 2012 we removed all sweets that might appeal (to children) from our belted till points. Belted tills are the most common type of tills we use in our food sections and are where we believe customers are most likely to be distracted by their display.”

My reply went like this:

With all due respect, how can you determine which sweets might and might not appeal to children at your belted till points? The colourful, character sweets may certainly appeal to younger children (and adults!) but how can you assume that in the absence of these, children will not go for the next best thing? You are also assuming that parents and families tend only to use the belted till points? Children are certainly not just the vulnerable party here either; as stated in our letter, health problems attributed to diet significantly affect both adults and children.

With the continued roll out of your self-serve checkouts, surely it would be wise to review your current policy on all sweets at all till points. A blanket policy certainly sends out a much stronger message concerning your health agenda. The range and quantity of sweets on display at the self-service points are often vast and as we said previously, the accumulative impact of impulse buys (of high calorie foods) can be extremely detrimental. Our suggestion is simply to swap these items that are of low nutritional value with those that are healthier and more nutritious.

Their reply came back as follows:

M&S have “made a note of and will pass on my comments about having more healthier and more nutritious items to their Service and Policy team for their consideration.” Of course they “can’t confirm that any changes will be made” and following my request, would not provide a contact name for the person that leads this team (so that I could continue discussions). It was interesting to read that M&S are so “focused on engaging with millions of customers” yet they were very reluctant to commit to or continue conversations with me.

2. My second letter went to Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury Company Values acknowledge they have a key role to play in promoting healthy eating and (apparently) set out to make healthy choices easy for their customers. They state they are encouraging good health and helping people change their behaviour. Their 2014 marketing code of practice is very explicit regarding the protection of children; that they will aim to support the role of parents, uphold responsible consumption and nutrition. This all sounds great as they implement these values and policies in their large supermarkets but they fail to do so in their smaller, local stores. My request was to continue to roll out their Company Values and codes of practice to ALL Sainsbury’s stores.

I have yet to receive a proper response other than being allocated a case manager with assurances that a full investigation will be conducted on behalf of the CEO. This was over a week ago....

3. My third letter went to Asda

Asda have reformulated products and cut the costs of healthier produce but other than that I found it very difficult to find any mention of specific healthy marketing policies. They have 22 pledges on the Government responsibility deal but the majority are related purely to alcohol. They have pledged to lower salt and saturated fat but, in my experience, on entering an Asda store you often hit a wall of doughnuts, muffins and biscuits before you get to the fruit and veg sections.

The response I received from Asda was the most positive and promising:

Their new Vice President of customer relations responded on behalf of their CEO. She indicated that following some recent changes to their structure, she was taking on Asda’s health agenda. She said she appreciated some of the significant issues that we face as a nation, and is keen to quickly determine how they as a business can help. She explained how she was currently recruiting a team to help first define their role in people’s lives from a health perspective (their customers, colleagues and communities they serve) and then prioritise the areas where they can make most material impact. To that end, she assured that her new Senior Director, once appointed, would contact me to discuss this subject further. I was quite happy with this and will certainly look at following this up.

4. Next was WHSmith

As a leading non-food retailer, I reminded WHSmith that they still have a key role to play in promoting healthy eating and enabling their customers to make healthier choices from the food that they offer. In their Corporate Responsibility document they acknowledge WHSmith “take the responsibility for the products we sell seriously”. Their Marketing Code of Practice states WHSmith “aim to offer customer’s choice but it is also essential that we accept and act responsibly concerning the food and drink products we offer”. The volume and variety of junk food displayed next to their tills is vast. WHSmith also use a particularly strong upselling strategy which further encourages the purchase and consumption of junk food. Buy a book or magazine and be asked to buy a massive bar of chocolate is entirely irresponsible.

I read with interest that WHSmith “always take into account the level of knowledge, sophistication and maturity of the people we are marketing to, particularly children”. In light of this statement, I thought they would be interested to know that research suggests our nutrition knowledge is not sophisticated and adults often make food choices based on taste preferences without considering the health ‘value’. Adults often act impulsively too so it is a very large assumption that we can expect children to make sophisticated informed choices when it comes to food!

Coincidentally a paper was published in the journal Public Health Nutrition around the time that I wrote to WHSmith and reported that almost one-sixth of non-food stores displayed checkout food and the majority of this was ‘less healthy’ and displayed at child height. Less healthy food was also more likely to be subject to a written price promotion than healthier food. Surely this has to change?

I have had no response from WHSmith.*

5. Next was Morrisons

Their corporate responsibility review clearly outlines the commitments they have made and it is reassuring to see continuation of the 27 pledges made as part of the Governments’ responsibility deal. They have reformulated products and are promoting healthier options, fruit and vegetables but as yet there are no signs that they plan to remove the junk. When questioned on this matter via Twitter they reported that they were responding to customer demand for choice.

I was intrigued by this and asked them if they had completed any customer surveys. Tesco and Lidl for example reported that over two-thirds of their customers prefer healthy checkouts and that adopting junk free tills had received overwhelmingly positive responses.

I have had no response from Morrisons

6. Last but not least was Iceland Foods

Iceland’s corporate responsibility document outlines the commitments that they have made as far back as the 1980s. They have 10 pledges on the Government’s responsibility deal. Like Asda, they have reformulated products and are actively promoting fruit and vegetables. Again, they seem reluctant to take responsibility for the products they promote.

I have had no response from Iceland Foods.

If we are to see improvements in the levels of overweight and obesity in the UK, we must change our social and food environment. Without doubt they (amongst other factors) influence our food preferences. The responsibility simply cannot be put on the consumer alone; the responsibility also lands firmly on the shoulders of our stores too.

*UPDATE 13/03/15

Posted simultaneously, through the power of the internet, here and on Mel's personal blog The Grub Hub.

Yesterday I received a reply from WHSmith (pictured right), so I felt it only fair to share this and my response to it, as I have for Marks and Spencer, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Iceland Foods.

My reply was addressed to WHSmith Group Communications Director Mr Mark Sabin:

Thank you for your letter in response to my request to stop the display and promotion of confectionery at WHSmith till points. I have read with interest your 2014 corporate responsibility report and would now like to raise some issues and questions concerning this report and some of WHSmith’s responsible retailing policies:

1. In your letter you explained that: “WHSmith are a very small player in the UK confectionery market”. I strongly believe this is not valid justification to ‘opt out’ and pass on your responsibility to the major supermarkets. As a seller of confectionery, sweets and soft drinks, no matter how small your contribution to the market, you are obligated to consider the full impact your products may have on consumer health.

2. Your report states: “you have extended your healthy food range”. Whilst products such as granola pots, smoothies and health food bars may be marketed as and appear ‘healthy’ they often contain high amounts of added sugar. These items are generally no better than sweets or chocolate and mean that we exceed our recommended sugar intake when consumed in excess. Have you consulted a registered nutritionist or dietitian when determining your product range? Do you have a specific threshold using traffic light labels or set a maximum sugar or fat content (that I mentioned in my previous letter) to help identify healthier products? Reviewing portion sizes of the products you provide is certainly a valuable step you have made but simply looking at the total calorie content is not always entirely helpful. As a nation that is in the midst of a health crisis attributed to diet, it is very important to consider the added sugar, saturated fat and salt content too.

3. You state that: “where your stores are in travel locations and you offer a more extensive range of food, drinks and snacking products, you have been increasing the range of healthy alternatives”. If you are assuming we are more likely to snack whilst travelling, it would be useful to have an evidence base here and if you are stocking more ‘healthy’ items, are you actively promoting them instead of the confectionery? You must also be confident your healthy alternatives meet the appropriate legislation if they are to be labelled as such. Please can I point you towards this rather large faux pas in one of your stores:

4. You state that: “your staff are trained to never offer promotions repeatedly to regular customers”. Are you assuming your customers are more likely to be regular if they purchase from stores in travel locations i.e. commuters making repeated journeys? How would WHSmith staff know if a customer is regular or not? Surely staff rotations and altering customer habits would make this impossible to determine with confidence and is a large assumption to make?

5. You explain that: “when chocolate or confectionery is included as part of a promotion, it is often designed for sharing or as a gift”. This clearly passes on the responsibility to your customer, rather than accepting it yourselves. Again, how can you possibly assume that the confectionery you sell will be shared or gifted?

6. You explain that WHSmith staff are: “trained on how to offer promotions so that staff never offer confectionery products to parents with children and never offer promotions repeatedly to anyone who has made it known they do not wish to be advised about such promotions”. How can your staff make a judgement that an adult has or does not have children? Children are not the only vulnerable party here either and unless your staff manage your till points throughout every working day, how can they determine if a customer has already been previously asked? You are also putting the onus on the customer to state if and why they don’t want your product. This could potentially be awkward for the customer in making unnecessary justifications.

Overall I am concerned about the assumptions made about WHSmith customers and from the explanations you have provided, I am not convinced your methods and criteria for selling products is sufficiently robust. I would be very happy however to discuss the nutritional contents and values of the products you offer and help establish a range that is clearly healthy and varied for your customers. I look forward to hearing from you again.
Yours sincerely,

Mel Wakeman

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  1. as a WHSmith employee (and anonymous for obvious reasons!) I want to actively disagree with their claims about staff training. My training explicitly stated that I must offer "till point conversation" items (which are, at any given time, 90-100% confectionery) to every customer. I have been reprimanded for not offering confectionery to a customer who has previously told me they have a health condition which prevents them from eating this type of food, and I am given daily targets for how many customers I need to make a confectionery sale to. this target is generally at 10%.

  2. I appreciate this is an awkward situation so thank you for commenting. This is very useful to know and makes me wonder if this a widespread issue. Much appreciated.

  3. Too damn right it's a widespread issue. Where I work (small supermarket branch of a larger chain) promotions are nearly always for fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate. Never any special offers on healthy goods. Like the correspondent above, we are given products to stack at the checkout and we are told we MUST upsell them. They are always sweets, cakes - anything loaded with sugar. I feel awkward about upselling such unhealthy goods so I generally don't, but I would definitely get into a bit of trouble if I complained about this policy. The only things we ever promote are the ones which are very unhealthy.