James Bielby, FWD Chief Executive

Bielby column: Can wholesalers sell healthy options and make profit?

With only a few months before new rules come into force for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products, FWD Chief Executive, James Bielby, considers if the government’s aims are good news for the convenience channel

Can wholesalers and convenience stores sell more healthy options and still make a profit?

We’re just a few months away from October’s new restrictions on the siting of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products. And as with many legislative interventions like this, the government’s aim is to improve public health through small changes to behaviour, both in shopping choices and in retailer mindset.

In some ways, the delay in promotional restrictions and the exemption for smaller stores on where they can place products means c-stores will be able to do as they always have done and over-index on HFSS sales. But retailers shouldn’t just do what they have always done, just because they can.

Customers want a choice of products, including alternatives to traditional convenience staples, and evidence shows that if the price and the merchandising is right, they will sell. Just look at how dairy alternatives have taken off in smaller shops. It’s not so long ago that full-fat milk would be the only variety on offer. Now consumers want oat, almond or soya milk, alongside the traditional blue top.

It’s not just Instagram influencers who are driving this trend. Government policy on things like the soft drinks industry levy has pushed consumers into buying more low-sugar products – driven by price and supplier reformulation. And if the government has got its ‘nudge’ policy right, that’s only going to increase.

A growing interest in eating healthily isn’t enough on its own for retailers to remove tempting treats from key purchasing positions, though. The price has to be right too and that’s where wholesalers and suppliers can help.

We’re already seeing initiatives such as the fantastic Good Food Wholesale project working out how to increase sales in the healthier ranges by finding a price point that suits every point in the chain.

Convenience stores are at the heart of their community and that brings a responsibility to lead change, which improves the life of that community or at the very least facilitate wider desire for change.

So there is an opportunity in the HFSS regulations to change what people expect of local stores and help them make choices they want to make, while still making a profit.

No one’s advocating a sudden charge into altruism and any move to influence long-term customer behaviour has to make commercial sense. But if we all get the offer right, those profits will increase.

If the business world is capable of making that kind of calculation, then the government should be too. Its investment in universal free school meals hasn’t increased significantly in a decade and as inflation bites, distributing school food becomes increasingly difficult.

But here’s that balance again – government support for universal school meals has demonstrable societal benefits: providing a healthy, nutritious meal for all children, regardless of income, and improving learning.

Investment in this area must increase and FWD is campaigning hard on behalf of members for the government to provide appropriate funding. Both business and government have an important role to play.

It’s simply a question of whether we’re prepared to adopt the right approach and look beyond the next budget – or in the government’s case, Budget – and make the long-term investment into a healthy society.

column convenience FWD Good Food Wholesale Government HFSS high fat sugar salt James Bielby retailers wholesale