A conference of food and drink manufacturers in London has been told that keeping products on shelf in supermarkets in 2016 depends on a better understanding of shoppers and how they behave, and then aligning these insights with pro-active range management.

Patrick Finlay, Director of Marketing & Strategy at category and shopper management specialist Bridgethorne, was addressing delegates at the Food & Drink Federation’s Staying On Shelf event. The event focused on the decisions by some retailers to delist added sugar drinks and the implications for British food and drink manufacturers.

“Suppliers need to address the sugar issue through a shopper lens,” Finlay said, “because if we understand what shoppers think and how they behave it will help inform, firstly, what we should put on the shelf and importantly how to keep it there.”

This, he continued, means ensuring that suppliers and retailers do what is right for both shoppers and consumers. Simplistically, he said, this means understanding how shopper decisions change according to when they are shopping, what they are purchasing and why, who for and for what occasion, because their choices will be different according to the answers to these questions.

Finlay argued that, whilst we all recognise the importance of sugar in our diet, the answer may not be as simple as removing all sugary products from the shelves. It is a question of balance, he contended, and that whilst acknowledging that there is a responsibility to ensure we all eat a balanced and healthy diet, lurching to extremes in the process may not necessarily be the answer either.

He cited research from the Bridgethorne Shopper Index, the company’s quarterly survey of shopper opinions, which showed that sugar content in food and drinks is the greatest concern for shoppers, being rated as more serious than fat content, additives, salt content and calories and that this is having an impact on buying behaviour. This concern appears to be driven primarily by health concerns (28.2% cited the fact that sugar caused health problems as their principal concern) and is possibly top of mind due to recent media coverage.

“Shoppers do have an appetite for lower sugar products but this doesn’t mean that is all that they want,” Finlay told the conference. “They want variety. This might include more reduced sugar lines, a full range of sugar levels, more products with sweeteners or simply just the products they want to buy. ‘In short they want a range that reflects their growing concerns but not a range that ignores all of their shopping and consumption needs.”

This, Finlay continued, will require suppliers to devote more resource to organising the shoppers in their categories into manageable groups based upon common shopping behaviours and personal profiles and then to overlay this shopper intelligence with range data to ensure the correct balance and market coverage is achieved.

“The danger for suppliers and manufacturers is that they hit the panic button now instead of using a more measured, informed and balanced approach,” Finlay added.