Academics and supermarket chain collaborate for study to encourage healthy food purchases
15 October 2020

The results of a study co-designed by Countdown supermarkets and the National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI), operated by UniServices at the University of Auckland, have highlighted opportunities to further build on knowledge that could promote healthy food purchasing decisions in a supermarket setting.

Supermarket aisle

“We know from previous research that supermarket interventions can be effective in encouraging healthy eating habits, however we also know that these are not necessarily adopted by retailers because they are not always commercially sustainable strategies,” explains study investigator Dr Leanne Young.

That is why the ability to carry out collaborative research with a committed industry partner was fundamental to this study seeking to design approaches that could be practically and effectively implemented. 

Countdown nutritionist Deb Sue says: "We've really valued working with the University of Auckland on this study, and looking at consumer behaviour in-situ rather than in theory which can often be the case. Customers make decisions for a wide range of reasons, and intervention studies like these are very valuable for us to better understand customer choice." 

“Like us, Countdown was motivated to nudge shoppers towards healthier food choices, and this research started from a place of shared understanding of the need which then drove design of an intervention that could be tested,” says Dr Young.

The chosen intervention tested more prominent shelf placement of healthier breakfast cereals. 

“Shelf placement alone had not been researched before, and our research was carried out in a ’real world’ environment in six Auckland supermarkets. It allowed for other considerations that supermarkets apply to display products on shelves such as brand blocking (grouping items in the same brand) and size blocking (grouping items of similar package size).”

While the research showed that more prominent shelf placement alone did not positively influence purchasing behaviour, insights gathered suggest that customers and retailers were supportive of making healthier products more prominent on shelves. The research team suggests however that future interventions should align product promotions with healthy eating strategies in order to provide consistent messages to shoppers about healthier choices. 

“What has been especially rewarding about the study for our team is the experience of working in close partnership with an industry partner and understanding the commercial factors that drive the feasibility of solutions. Building on this experience NIHI is well-placed to undertake more co-design research where the potential for real-world impact is high,” says Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, the study lead investigator.

The study is part of the DIET research programme led by Professor Ni Mhurchu in NIHI and funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. It involves a range of projects seeking to improve nutrition and health in New Zealand with an emphasis on practical interventions and translating findings into policy and action. 

An overview of the results of the co-design project is available online, and the study publication is available in full in Social Science and Medicine.  


About the National Institute for Health Innovation

The National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI) is a leading New Zealand research institute with a focus on delivering innovative approaches to today’s most pressing health problems. Supported by The University of Auckland and UniServices, NIHI provides independent scientific evidence that supports individuals, communities, clinicians and policy makers to improve people’s health in New Zealand and around the globe.