Think Outside of the Free From Aisle

As part of a recent feature in industry magazine, The Grocer, they have conducted some market research which found that “45% of Brits think free from foods should be merchandised as part of the general range, rather than in a dedicated section.” (full details here).

The vast majority of my followers favoured a dedicated 'free from' section, mostly due to convenience.

The vast majority of my followers favoured a dedicated ‘free from’ section, mostly due to convenience.

It seems the survey was of general consumers, rather than just those that already buy free-from goods, but I reacted that it would make the weekly shop a bit of a treasure hunt for the free from consumer! In fact, based on a brief poll of my free-from twitter followers, most agree with me on this, with many citing the convenience of a dedicated free-from section as the main reason, although this is not a unanimous verdict, with many wanting a more ‘normal’ shopping experience, and those avoiding other allergens than gluten already having to scour much more broadly for their free from products.

Many shops and manufacturers have a mix and match approach to where they display their free from goods. Patchily stocked free from shelves often contain sweet treats and the occasional curious naturally gluten free product like peanut flour (marvelous for other allergies, I don’t think); and naturally free from hidden treasures are stocked elsewhere in the store, as well as the odd labelled free from product to maximise its potential buyer pool.

As part of The Grocer's feature on Free From, they re-imagined the Free From aisle, emphasising its lifestyle associations. I think retailers need to go further.

As part of The Grocer’s feature on Free From, they re-imagined the Free From aisle, emphasising its lifestyle associations. I think retailers need to go further.

Every free from shopper knows, you need a slightly geeky knowledge of each major supermarket to find what you need! You need to know, for example, that in Tesco there’s a free from section and a free from freezer section (and sometimes even a free from chiller section!); but in Marks & Spencer you need to look in every aisle for the little gluten free logo. In Whole Foods, you takes your chances in with the baked goods and gluteny flour. Unless you’re in the biscuit aisle. SO confusing! Coeliac UK have to publish an annual directory just to help us with the weekly shop. It’s enough to make most of us turn to online shopping (assuming they’ve tagged their products correctly).


Some of us like the opportunity to have a good browse ;)

The Marks & Spencer approach was very popular among my twitter followers, and shows that with a clear labeling system so suitable products can be easily found on all shelves, integrating us free from types with the regular shopper is definitely possible, and makes us feel more ‘normal’ than a visit to “the shelf where products go to die”. It is very timely that Foods Matter are launching an accreditation system: over time as manufacturers opt in, this won’t only give reassurance to those of us plagued by the ambiguity of allergy labeling (or lack of), consistent and recognisable flourishes on the packaging will be a massive time-saver.

Even with clear labelling, cross-contamination in store is still a concern for those with allergies/coeliac, though: in the retailers that do this already, it is not uncommon to find a broken bag of wheat flour leaking all over the gluten free flour in Whole Foods – a sight that makes me shudder! All too often in many shops, non free-from products are mistakenly put in the wrong place; and stores with excellent free from products spoil their reputation by not understanding their customer’s needs at the point of sale and create risk for the allergic shopper in a hurry.

Oh come on, Waitrose, don't just send us to the free from aisle, we'd love to enjoy all of your ranges!

Oh come on, Waitrose, don’t just send us to the free from aisle, we’d love to enjoy all of your ranges!

It’s this, among other things, that makes me wish retailers and manufacturers didn’t segment their products so much into a free from ‘category’, and manage them as separate businesses. I think this drives certain behaviors and product profiles, for example:

  • Emphasis on lines that are sure to sell well in a very small market (compared to the overall food market) e.g. gluten free above all other ‘free froms’, sweet treats with long shelf life etc.
  • Mis-marketing of free from products as ‘healthier’ by association with whole foods or diet products to maximise appeal
  • A fight for shelf space in smaller stores
  • Confusion among shop staff and shoppers between ‘free from’ lines and ‘normal’ lines from the same brand
  • A ‘blind spot’ as far as the overall free from shopping experience goes

Because of this, I think Free From needs to be more than a category.

The reason Marks & Spencer are winning such affection from the gluten free community, is not so much to do with where their products are shelved, nor their (frankly pretty average) gluten free bread; but the growing abundance of ‘normal’ products sporting a gluten free logo, and their clear allergen labelling policy. The range now includes everything from sausages to Christmas party food, with a fair few proper puddings among plenty of naturally gluten free options too. But with this context, it’s baffling that their cafes in the same stores have such a poor gluten free offering.

My suggestion to supermarkets and manufacturers is this: don’t think just about creating specific products for the growing free from market, take a look at all of your existing range and practices. How can they be made more accessible for the free from consumer? And what can you put in place to help this across your store/product range? We are in the age of customer experience, and customer satisfaction with their experience breeds loyalty (believe me, the free from community can be fiercely loyal). Instead why not think about:

  • How can your existing products be slightly modified to maximise their appeal to free from consumers (traces of milk in a gluten free sausage seasoning, why?!)?
  • How can your manufacturing/food preparation/shelf-stacking processes be tightened up to minimise cross contamination?
  • How can you make sure you are consistent in use of ingredients/labels across your range?
  • How could your shopping experience be made easier and more accessible for your customers? Perhaps shelf labelling, a store guide and training for staff on allergies/coeliac?
  • How can you inspire and engage free from shoppers?
You need a free from 'champion'!

You need a free from ‘champion’!

I’m not saying these are cheap, or simple changes to make, but they would create a more sustainable impact than a here today, gone tomorrow new product. When any company looks at their customer experience, they should be looking at free from consumers as an important segment with unique needs outside of the free from aisle too.

In my day job, I help businesses to transform their way of doing business in a digital world – many of them do this by creating a ‘champion’ or ‘centre of excellence’ to educate and inspire change in the organisation with the end goal that the change is so embedded in how you do things you don’t need the role any more. I think there might be a similar role in retailers and manufacturers for a ‘free from’ champion; for someone that considers the whole customer experience, rather than just the product. This person could be measured on customer acquisition, satisfaction, and retention. They might find in their research that we do want to shop from a free from section, but I expect they’ll find we’d like to buy a lot more too.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Where would you like to find free from products? What could supermarkets and manufacturers do to make your shopping experience easier?

6 responses to “Think Outside of the Free From Aisle

  1. I am definitely pro-Free From section when it comes to the staples like pasta, bread, etc. There are large sections of the supermarket that I never even go down. If they had every gluten-free item next to each gluten equivalent, shopping would soon turn into a case of the blind man in a dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there.

    And then because consumers wouldn’t know when new products launched, supermarkets would claim they “just weren’t selling” and take them away.

    Not to mention other customers accidentally buying the wrong item…

  2. My local supermarket has just started mixing free from with normal ranges. It takes forever to do My shopping as the packets look similar & the labelling is poor. I’m buying much less & making things from scratch at home. I rarely visit an M&S that stocks free from, I guess they are too small.

  3. I’m really torn on this one because I’m so use to being ‘off grid’ so to speak when it comes to the freefrom aisle. I have almost cut out processed food from my diet as I find negative effects on my eczema from even freefrom products and suspect it’s some of the less normal ingredients they use causing me problems. I do visit the section but often only select a few trusted favourite brands like Isabels, Nairns, Mrs Crimbles which I know I can trust. I rarely by branded supermarket freefrom foods and instead buy meat, fish, fruit and veg and cook from scratch. I do buy the simple GF pastas and I do like to be able to find these few items in the freefrom section. However when I have time I do love discovering hidden accidentally freefrom products in M&S and Waitrose if I’m browsing – I don’t know how these could be flagged for us more easily because it does involve detective work to find them or just a stroke of luck. I tend to buy more from Holland and Barrett online and Goodness Direct or direct from the company themselves like ilumi, Plamil etc. All in all it’s a nightmare. I probably go to so many places and health food shops and get bits and pieces from everywhere. Not ideal but it is my ‘normal. I have just today found some Coles Wheat and dairy and nut free christmas puddings in my local Garden Centre – that’s one job sorted ;o)

  4. I’m totally new to all of this having just vmbeen diagnosed as gluten intolerant at the least and still undergoing various tests to see if it’s anything else. I do think a free from section has its place but am now obsessively checking any other less obvious product to see if that can still be in my diet. That said so many GF products are full of such other products that as others have mentioned I’m dusting off my cooking skills and learning a new way of life at 35. Great post.

  5. Pingback: Holland & Barrett, The #HBBakeOff | gluten free b·

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