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One in a series of articles looking at highlights of the upcoming FMI Show in Chicago, May 2-4, 2004.

The obesity epidemic in the US and the world has been well documented, and yet the evidence seems to be that despite all the lip service and media focus, people keep eating and getting fatter.

Part of the problem: despite that fact that 34 percent of U.S. consumers are overweight and another 32 percent are obese, most do not consider themselves particularly overweight or obese.

At the same time, retailers are faced with the opportunity to enter the obesity fray, to develop programs that will help shoppers be more intelligent about the food choices they make for themselves and their children. But retailers often take a hands-off approach to the obesity issue, believing that “it isn’t their problem” and that their stores can avoid being labeled complicit in the fattening of America because they offer a plethora of choices.

While it may be that supermarkets won’t be the first targets of litigators seeking to do to “big food” what they did to “big tobacco,” they well could be targeted for such attention down the line. (John Banzhaf, one of the most prominent attorneys leading the charge against “big food,” said as much at the FMI Midwinter meetings last January.) But more than that, the confusion and clutter that cloud consumer perceptions of the obesity problem and potential solutions offer retailers a ripe opportunity to make a difference in shoppers’ lives.

During a special three-hour Learning Lab at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Show in Chicago – scheduled for 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 4 – a panel of experts from a variety of fields will look at effective, hands-on ways in which to address the obesity epidemic.

Contributors to this session will include:

  • Laurie Demeritt of The Hartman Group, which has just completed an exhaustive survey of consumer attitudes toward “Obesity in America.”

  • Mary McMillen of Buehler’s and Rosemary Fifield of Co-op Food Stores, each of whom will present action plans for retailers looking to educate consumers and direct their shopping behavior.

  • PepsiCo’s Brock Leach, who will offer the manufacturer perspective, outlining ways in which retailer-supplier partnerships can be developed that will benefit consumers and provide a “win-win” scenario for the industry.

  • And Rodale’s Ed Slaughter, who will drill down specifically to the issue of childhood obesity, and focus on the specific steps that retailers can take to help deal with this serious problem.

The Learning Lab, entitled “The Obesity Opportunity: Shrinking Waistlines, Building Bottom Lines,” will be moderated by MNB Content Guy Kevin Coupe, and will offer attendees the chance to craft their own anti-obesity strategies that can be brought back to their companies and implemented.

For a preview of some of what will be learned during the session, we turned to The Hartman Group’s Demeritt, who offered a preview of what she will tell retailers and manufacturers about how consumers think and act:

  • How consumers see themselves derives as much from the comparisons they make with those around them as it does from their own attributes. Consumers keep an eye on their friends and relatives to decide when it is time to gain or lose weight. This means that many consumers are operating out of ignorance…a condition that will be made abundantly clear in videotaped interviews compiled by The Hartman Group.

  • People who view themselves as being “somewhat overweight” are more likely to use euphemisms and descriptive language about body shape than others. Among the most popular: “healthy,” “curvy,” and “big boned” – all of which help consumers avoid using the “o” word.

  • Consumers often don’t perceive themselves as being at risk because of their weight, and when they do go on diets, it is because they want to “look better” as opposed to wanting to improve their health profiles. The changes in habits that they make tend to be focused on “cutting back here and there” as opposed to make large-scale changes.

  • The big opportunity, according to the Hartman Group, is to create an environment of commiseration and empathy as opposed to lecturing people about obesity, and to “provide this group with ‘healthy’ options that are convenient and easy to prepare.

For more information, go to:
KC's View:
We’re really looking forward to this session and the opportunity to help retailers develop workable strategies that deal with this important topic. (We’re also grateful to FMI for providing us with this opportunity.) The notions expressed above just skim the surface of what we hope to get at…and we’re hoping that together we can all create an atmosphere that will stress collaboration and interactivity.

Don’t forget – it all happens at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 4 at the FMI Show in Chicago…and we’re looking forward to seeing you there.