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HOW TO INVENT NEW ‘HEALTHY’ PRODUCTS

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For me, a health crisis took me out of my comfort zone and into doctors’ offices, new ethnic restaurants — and new product success.

New products are the lifeblood of our industry. But how do you create ones that are healthy while also offering great taste, quality and value? Well, here’s what helped me when I headed up private label at Walmart.

‘I went to a lot of restaurants. But not the ones that served my favorite, traditional dishes. Instead, I went to ethnic restaurants with new flavors and new ingredients.’

THE DEEP DIVE

First, I did a deep dive into industry data from lRI, Nielsen and yes, the pages of Frozen and Refrigerated Buyer. They helped me see customer trends (versus fads) by category and by item. This got me the view from 30,000 feet, which is the essential starting point.

But for more granular information on what’s selling and why, it’s natural to turn next to consumers to find out why they chose to make specific purchases. Often, the answers aren’t obvious. In fact, shoppers themselves may not have a good idea about what drove their purchase decisions. This is especially true since they are thinking about what they chose, not about an unspecified alternative not yet on the shelf.

To drill down further, we need to step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves. Start by thinking of your own desires and needs. For me, it was my health. After having open heart surgery some years ago, I got a dose of food reality very quickly. I had thought I was eating a reasonably healthy diet, but boy I was wrong. My doctor told me that the foods I grew up on were not as healthy as we once thought. All the hot dogs, soft drinks, peanut butter sandwiches and fried chicken I wolfed down just added to my problem.

Bob went in for what he expected to be relatively minor heart surgery but woke up with a quintuple bypass.

To make matters worse, I was diagnosed with diabetes at around the same time. So I figured, who better than a guy who grew up in the food industry to jump into this with both feet? And that’s what I did. I sat and listened to doctors tell me what needs to be taken out of foods, and what I need to replace them with. They weren’t all obvious.

So from this lesson, hard as it was, I put healthy at the top of the list followed closely by quality and value. Great starting point, but miles from the finish. Adding or subtracting some ingredients will make an item healthier but might not make it taste better. The last thing a person wants is “healthy” food that doesn’t taste good or isn’t satisfying.

My next challenge was to fix this, and to do that I had to get out of my comfort zone again by going to a lot of restaurants. But not the ones that served my favorite, traditional dishes. Instead, I went to ethnic restaurants that offered new flavors and new ingredients. In several cases, I learned I could replace traditional ingredients that were not good for me with new ones that added real zing to my food. I also learned about better ways to cook that were also more healthy, such as using different cooking oils.

Then I went back to the data. But this time I wasn’t looking so much for sales numbers as I was for unhealthy ingredients. And healthy new ingredients that could replace them. There were many new opportunities.

I put calls out to our manufacturers and challenged them to get trans-fats out of our items. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, but we did succeed in doing so. We took out MSG, and made sure non-fat items didn’t taste poorly. We continued to reduce salt and sugar from all items while at the same time challenging our manufacturers to find alternatives to them.

IT WASN’T EASY!

Again, this was not easy. There was resistance to change, driven by what manufacturers called “increased costs,” LOL. But by taking them through my journey, I slowly won many over. We went back through every existing item to see if they could pass new standards, and made sure any new ones could as well.

Our biggest success was in challenging not only ourselves and our suppliers but the federal government to get involved with gluten-free products. Without question, this was the hardest fight I ever had in the food industry. It opened the door not only to a food trend, but to many people who needed the products to achieve better health. It doesn’t get better than that! n

Bob Anderson is the retired vp/general merchandise manager at Walmart, where he worked for 17 years. He can be reached at bob.sue@sbcglobal.net.

Bob Anderson

Bob Anderson

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