What exactly is our role in driving the health agenda?

Antony Begley

If you haven’t had a look online at the Scottish Government’s public consultation document on ‘Reducing Health Harms of Foods High in Fat, Sugar or Salt’, then I suggest you do.

The proposals the Government are considering could have very significant impacts on the way we lay out and operate our stores, particularly when it comes to price promotions and siting of lines designated by the Government as ‘discretionary products’. These products are “typically high in fat, sugar or salt, and yet provide little or no nutritional benefit necessary for a healthy diet”. We’re talking confectionery, biscuits, crisps, cakes, soft drinks with added sugar and so on. In other words, quite a lot of the products found in a typical c-store.

In essence, the consultation could lead to new regulations prohibiting multi-buys in these categories and preventing us from stocking these lines at the till point or on promotional ends. The consultation runs until early January and if you have a view on these matters, then the time to make your voice heard is now.

But the whole episode brings us back to one of the most important questions in local retailing in modern times: what role should the local retailing sector be playing with regards to the health of our shoppers? I would have to admit that historically my opinion on this has been that local retailers are there to sell products to shoppers and what we stock reflects what they want to buy. It’s not our job to tell customers what they should buy or tell them they can’t have products that are bad for them.

Having run Woodlands Local for the last few years however, and having spent many long hours behind the till, my opinion on this issue has changed. I’ve grown reasonably close to some of our customers and have been shocked by some of the consumption patterns I’ve seen. Without doing a disservice to the great people of Falkirk, the diet of the typical customer is in desperate need of change – and this is not unique to Falkirk.

So, having served a small community for five years, I have to say that I now believe we, as local retailers, do indeed have a role to play in helping our customers improve their diet and wellbeing. Washing our hands of any responsibility is no longer an option. As active members of the local communities we serve, and bearing in mind the broader and deeper relationships that c-stores have with their customers, I believe that we do – and indeed must – have a role to play. At the very least we can make healthier options more widely available in our stores. And if we fancy going a step further we could also increase the prominence of healthier lines and even take on a proactive educational role, working with our shoppers to help encourage them to take small steps towards a healthier diet.

Changing consumption patterns will take years and the path ahead is littered with problems but the Scottish Government quite rightly has the improvement in public health bit between its teeth and change is coming. Our challenge now is to work with the Government to ensure that change happens in a way that takes the realities of our industry into consideration. That requires an open mind from both sides.

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Antony Begley, Publishing Director