Monday, June 10, 2013

How do you prefer to shop for gluten-free groceries?

There's no doubt that gluten-free items are getting easier to find in mainstream

Some have created dedicated gluten-free sections or include gluten-free foods in a designated natural or health food department in the store. Others spread the gluten-free products throughout the store, for example putting gluten-free pasta on the shelves where "regular" pasta is stocked.

In some supermarkets, it's a hybrid system, with specialty brands in the reserved gluten-free spot and mainstream brands in the regular aisles. So while you might find Kinnikinnick S'moreables with other gluten-free products, you'll find Chex gluten-free cereals in the same aisle as gluten-containing Cheerios.

I recently listened to a webinar that touched on approaches for retailers interested in stocking gluten-free products. One of the presenters said she thought integration of gluten-free products in the regular aisles is the wave of the future.

And it got me thinking about gluten-free consumers' shopping preferences.

I personally prefer a specialty section, though I have no problem picking up the mainstream items as I go through the rest of the store. The two supermarkets closest to my home, Wegmans and Giant, both do it this way.

I know just where the specialty area is, and I can easily find products I buy all the time. I also quickly notice new products  when they are added to the shelves. In both stores, a freezer section that carries gluten-free foods is included in the specialty area even though it's far from the regular freezer aisles.

 If I only need specific gluten-free items - a gluten-free baguette and pasta for dinner, bagels for the next morning and crackers for a snack, I can go to one place, gather them quickly and make a quick get-away. (I admit the supermarket is not my favorite place to spend a lot of time.)

When I am doing a larger weekly shop and go through all the aisles, I pick up other gluten-free products as I go. But sometimes a new product will be added and get lost in the crowd of gluten-containing items. If I, and other shoppers, can't readily find it, it's usually not long before the store decides it's not really a big seller. Then it's gone for good.

I think it's especially hard to find frozen foods when they are added to the mainstream freezer case. Maybe it's all that door banging and cold air escaping that causes me to rush and miss things. Giant carried gluten-free meatballs for months before I ever found them.

Wegmans has long been known for its attention to gluten-free shoppers and those who have the regional supermarket nearby usually feel lucky. The gluten-free section, located in the store's Nature's Marketplace, is big and well stocked. You can use coupons issued for products from the marketplace for any gluten-free item.

Wegmans also has an extensive line of store brand products that are clearly marked with a "G" for gluten-free which it sells in the regular aisles. Many of these are non-perishable items like Wegmans Asian Classics sauces, but it also includes things like ice cream and potato chips. The symbol makes it easy to identify gluten-free items and reduces the need to rely on very close label reading of ingredients.

Some stories like Giant have shelf tags that alert you to gluten-free products and while these can work well, you have to make sure that the product you pick up is the one really intended to be flagged by the tag. Shoppers have been know to move things around on the shelves.

And you won't find tags for naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables and plain meats, which can lead those new to the gluten-free diet to wonder if that means these items are not gluten free. (They are.)

Some stores purposefully do not have a dedicated gluten-free section and stock all of their gluten-free products throughout the regular aisles. Whole Foods, a  natural and organic food store chain, previously handled gluten-free items this way, but now almost all locations offer both a gluten-free section and gluten-free products spread throughout the store.

I am interested in what readers think. Let me know what system you like best and why. What is the best gluten-free feature of the store where you shop regularly?

Even as I type this I am mindful that in some places, none of these options exist and it's still hard to find gluten-free foods without having to travel far or order them online. I hope that as the gluten-free market grows and more food stores realize gluten-free shoppers are important consumers this will change.

Amy Ratner


Mariann O. said...

Since I have a completely gluten-free house and run a Personal Chef business that is also gluten-free I prefer to shop where I can go directly to the items that I need and use. I do appreciate a display of items in my local store's 'New Products' section in case there is something interesting to try but I am a periphery shopper and rarely go into the aisles for processed foods. Frozen foods also segregated makes things so much faster and efficient.

Mariann O. said...

As a Celiac and Gluten-Free Chef I only need the items that are dedicated to gluten-free prep. My local store (Heinen's, NEOHIO) has dedicated shelving for gluten-free and other special diet needs as well as freezer space that is dedicated. Since I only buy from the periphery of the store it is helpful and makes for efficient shopping that these two areas are not stuck in the middle aisles.