We are facing major global health challenges that have potential consequences for shoppers and for the retail industry.  The obesity issue, which is forecast to get worse, is already contributing to high rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  In the UK, spending on healthcare doubled between 1997 and 2009; if current trends continue the NHS will face a funding gap of £117 billion by 2022.

Consumers are actively looking for supermarkets to take the lead in helping them live healthier lives, and external stakeholders expect us to play a role as well.  Tesco has responded with a reformulation program that has removed billions of calories from our product ranges and enabled us to meet UK government salt targets. However, reformulation — improving the healthiness of what we sell — is only part of the answer. How we sell products is the other.

It is a fact that supermarkets sell all the food required to eat a healthy diet.  With weekly promotions on healthier foods including fresh, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables and healthier alternatives, plus healthy product brand ranges and innovative approaches to healthy product development, retailers are continuing to make healthy eating more affordable, convenient and tasty.

It is also true that supermarkets offer customers choices, and most would agree we should continue to do so. But it’s important that we recognize what we can do to encourage customers towards making healthier choices.  There are a number of approaches that have been discussed in the public debate about how much retailers can or should do — for example, pricing and promotional activity, merchandising and layout changes, improved labeling and greater availability of further advice and information.

At Tesco, we take the lead from customers. We have set ourselves a challenge: to make it easier to be healthier at Tesco. We want to be the champion of making healthier choices easier while never compromising on taste.  Customers want us to demonstrate a helpful and positive attitude to health but they don’t want us to tell them what to eat or to limit choice. They want us to encourage and support them with small but achievable changes.

One of our key strategies in 2014 was to remove confectionery from checkouts. A significant proportion of our customers — nearly two-thirds (65%) — told us that removing confectionery from the checkouts would help them make healthier choices when shopping.  At the same time, 67% of parents also told Tesco that having no confectionery near the checkout would help them make healthier choices for their children.

We announced our intention to remove all sweets off all checkouts in May 2014, with the intention of bringing in the new, healthier checkouts in January 2015. We worked to establish the right range for checkouts that met our customers’ needs and was nutritionally appropriate.

A straw model set of criteria, prohibiting any product high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt and therefore carrying a “red” traffic light according to the Traffic Light labeling system, was developed in consultation with key stakeholders. A range was then created based on these criteria and tested with customers in select stores over summer–autumn 2014. As a result of customer feedback, we adjusted the criteria and the range — for example, we removed all diet fizzy drinks and included some exceptional products that attracted a red traffic light due to naturally occurring sugar and fat (i.e. dried fruit and nuts).

By taking this step, the overall healthiness of our customers’ shopping in convenience stores improved significantly after the first three months, based on the data we have about the nutritional content of our customers’ shopping baskets. Around a third of our customers are aware of the new policy and, of those, a quarter said that since confectionary has been removed from checkouts they have made either slightly or much healthier choices as a result.  The move was welcomed by government and received positive comments from influential, well-known stakeholders.

A responsible retailer should strive to understand the approaches that will help make it easier for their customers to make healthier purchasing decisions in their stores. However, retailers cannot bear sole responsibility for tackling these issues. We continue look to government, industry, public health institutions and others to work with us to address the health challenges we all face.

 Rebecca Shelley is Group Communications Director for Tesco. She leads and oversees internal communications with more than 500,000 colleagues as well as Media, Government and Corporate Social Responsibility. Rebecca is also the chair of the Tesco Charity Trust.