How to Merchandise Gluten-Free Foods

3 steps to creating an outstanding customer experience
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To ensure that gluten-free consumers place your store on their go-to list, optimize your store layout to make gluten-free items as easy to locate as possible.

Delivering a stellar shopping experience is one of the most important steps a retail grocer can take to foster customer loyalty. This is especially true when it comes to earning the loyalty of consumers who can’t eat gluten, whether because of medical necessity or a lifestyle choice. Last year alone, 9,300 new products were certified through our nonprofit’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), indicating a growing recognition by manufacturers that the demand for gluten-free products is more than a passing fad and that gluten-free products are becoming a mainstay category in the food industry. While this rapid rise in the category’s popularity means there are more options for gluten-free consumers than ever before, it also presents challenges for traditional retailers as they learn to merchandise an entirely new category of products.

Ten years ago, gluten-free consumers were widely considered to be a niche market and were catered to almost exclusively by health food stores. However, increasing awareness of celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and other gluten-related medical conditions has spurred significant growth in the gluten-free market and an increase in gluten-free products available from traditional retailers. Currently, celiac disease affects one in 100 Americans, while an estimated 13% of the population may have NCGS. An even greater number of Americans have adopted the gluten-free diet as part of a lifestyle change, having found it to alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions and improve their overall health.

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Although gluten-free products are more expensive than their traditional counterparts, 23% of American households shop for them, suggesting that gluten-free consumers are accustomed to paying more for the products that meet their health needs. They also report being willing to travel farther to find a single store that meets all of their family’s dietary needs, rather than making trips to multiple stores to access all of the product selections they require.

While creating a flourishing business for these loyal customers takes a commitment of time and resources, the benefits will certainly outweigh the costs and set the stage for continued growth. Successful merchandising of gluten-free foods can be achieved by any retailer and can make all the difference when it comes to incorporating gluten-free consumers into your customer base. The following are the three steps you can take to ensure a stress-free shopping experience for customers in this demographic.

1. Optimize Store Layouts for Easy Access

Being unable to locate specific products among aisles of food can be a discouraging experience, and it’s one that gluten-free shoppers face all too often. While the selection and availability of gluten-free products has improved dramatically in the past five years, grocery shopping remains an anxiety-inducing experience for customers who require them. In a recent survey conducted by the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), 60% of respondents reported having cried in a grocery store out of intense feelings of stress during their shopping experience.

To ensure that gluten-free consumers place your store on their go-to list, optimize your store layout to make gluten-free items as easy to locate as possible. Because gluten-free shoppers tend to shop the perimeter of grocery stores, you can showcase gluten-free products by placing them on end caps. Dedicating an aisle or specific shelves to gluten-free items is also a worthwhile investment.

One important thing to keep in mind when planning your merchandising strategy is that gluten-free consumers are wary of stores that mix gluten-free products with other foods. If you can’t avoid merchandising gluten-containing and gluten-free products in the same location, consider positioning gluten-free products on a higher shelf to decrease the risk of cross-contact between products, such as a bag of flour spilling on a gluten-free package.

Additionally, many gluten-free shoppers will go to great lengths to avoid cross-contact while shopping, even taking the time to wipe down food packaging, shopping carts or register belts to remove potential traces of gluten. For this reason, store cleanliness and access to cart wipes are also selling points for the gluten-free shopper.

2. Identify Gluten-Free Items With Shelf Tags and Package Labels

Once you’ve found the best possible shelf space for your gluten-free products, make sure your shelf tags clearly identify these items as gluten-free. Additionally, ask stockers to double-check that each of the items matches their shelf tag. This can be tricky, as some manufacturers have packaging with minimal differentiation. You’ll also want to pay particular attention to the shelf life of gluten-free breads and baked goods, as these products can spoil quickly. Spending top dollar on a loaf of bread that’s close to or at its expiration date is almost as frustrating for customers as not finding any gluten-free options to begin with, so it’s a good practice to rotate these products frequently.

When stocking products, another area that will need special attention is your frozen food section. While most stores offer gluten-free frozen products, the variety of these items is often fairly limited. Giving your gluten-free shoppers the same choices provided to other consumers – for example, by offering more than one brand of frozen pizza, or by offering high-demand gluten-free baked goods and savory snacks – is another way to turn gluten-free shoppers into loyal customers.

Most importantly, where possible, stock items that are certified gluten-free. Three-quarters of gluten-free consumers report looking specifically for products that carry gluten-free certification logos from trusted organizations, rather than labels that claim the item is “gluten friendly.”

3. Pay Attention to Prepared Foods

With consumers leading increasingly busy lives, more shoppers are opting for grab-and-go prepared foods. If you offer deli items, verify which meats and cheeses are gluten-free, store them separately from items containing gluten and ensure your deli workers are familiar with the gluten-free options. Having a dedicated slicer for your gluten-free products is also an important means of preventing cross-contact in the deli section.

At the salad bar, you can prevent cross-contact by placing croutons and other items containing gluten in locations where they can’t fall into gluten-free ingredients. When preparing gluten-free pasta salads, boil noodles in a separate pot from the one used for noodles containing gluten. It’s also crucial to confirm that items from local vendors that are labeled gluten-free don’t contain ingredients derived from gluten-containing sources and that vendors are following best practices for preventing cross-contact.

On-the-job training is also vital for preventing cross-contact. One simple way to provide effective training is for new employees to shadow more experienced staff members as they stock goods or prep gluten-free foods. Providing clear and concise written documentation is also an important part of an effective training program. Written procedures don’t have to be complicated; instead, aim for transparency and simplicity.

Promote, Promote, Promote

Once you’ve stocked your store with a variety of quality gluten-free products and optimized your store layout, it’s time to promote your gluten-free offerings. Featuring gluten-free products in store circulars, newsletters or email blasts will help to get the word out. Promotions are especially powerful during special events like Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month in November and Celiac Awareness Month in May. Surveying customers about which gluten-free products they’d like to see can also be a way of communicating that the store prioritizes their dietary needs.

Another way to engage customers who are living gluten-free while also promoting gluten-free products is through hosting expos and demonstrations featuring gluten-free experts or working with advocacy groups like GIG, which offers a toolkit for grocers and retail dietitians with insights to educate your gluten-free consumers, details about gluten-free certification, and more. If you have the resources, retaining a registered dietitian to consult with shoppers, even on a part-time basis, can be a huge help to shoppers who are on a gluten-free diet.

With the growth in demand for gluten-free products, providing options that appeal to this consumer base is, simply put, a smart business strategy with the power to drive sales and loyalty for years to come. The gluten-free community is known for being vocal on social media when it comes to showing appreciation for stores that offer a stress-free, convenient shopping experience, and showing gluten-free customers that you care about their needs may prompt them to share their experience with others.

Most importantly, by eliminating cross-contact and providing a variety of clearly labeled gluten-free products, you are supporting the health and well-being of families living gluten-free — just as you strive to do for all of your valued customers.

About the Author

Jeanne Reid

Jeanne Reid is the marketing manager for the Auburn, Wash.-based Gluten Intolerance Group. Reid is a marketing and advertising professional with 25 years in the CPG, retail, restaurant and grocery industries, including merchandising with A&P Supermarkets and advertising for Hannaford/Food Lion. A difficult family battle with celiac disease was an eye-opener for Reid, providing a segue to focus on the gluten-free market.
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