Three-stage investigation into the balance of healthy versus less healthy food promotions among NI food retailers

Last updated:
21 March 2016
This NI-specific research aimed to provide recommendations for strategies to increase consumer accessibility to healthier food products (i.e. number, range, and variety) sold on promotional offer within retail stores. The three stages of the research were designed to understand how it may be possible to influence the retail sector to increase accessibility to healthier food promotions.
Study duration: July 2014 to May 2015
Project code: FS305021
Contractor: University of Ulster


The key strategic driver for this research was the Department for Health, Social Services and Public Safety Northern Ireland policy, ‘A Fitter Future for All: a framework for preventing and addressing overweight and obesity in Northern Ireland 2012-2022’. One of the short-term outcomes the framework aims to deliver is that food retailers are encouraged and enabled to consider reducing point of sale placement of foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar, and that exposure to promotion of healthier foods is increased. FSA in NI has been identified and has agreed to be the lead delivery partner for this outcome.

In January 2013, the Consumer Council for NI published its report, ‘Hard to Stomach - the impact of rising food costs for Northern Ireland Consumers’. This report states in its recommendations, ‘The Consumer Council will work with colleagues at FSA in NI to engage with food retailers in addressing the balance of special offers (basic/ essential items and single item discounts versus multi-buys); their positioning and promotion in stores and the extent to which healthy and less healthy (high salt/sugar/fat content) offers are promoted respectively’.

Furthermore data from the recent FSA in NI commissioned Kantar survey (Household food and drink purchasing and nutrient data) indicted that in 2012, around one third (30%) of NI consumer’s shopping baskets comprised of promotional products.

Within this background, the FSA in NI (in partnership with the Consumer Council for NI) commissioned this research.

Research Approach

The overall aim of the research was to identify strategies to influence the NI retail sector to improve the prominence and accessibility to healthier foods.

More specifically, the objectives were to:

  • Review the existing body of literature on promotional offers, health and buying behaviour
  • Determine whether consumer grocery shopping behaviour is affected by promotional activity
  • Develop an audit tool for assessing the nutritional quality of promotional offers
  • Assess the nutritional quality of promotional offers amongst food retailers in NI
  • Understand the perceptions of key stakeholders relating to promotional offers within the context of the NI food retail environment
  • Investigate the different factors influencing the retailers’ commitment to using certain food promotional offers
  • Formulate recommendations on creating a healthy shopping environment for consumers

The research findings will help encourage retailers to promote healthier food products in-store and consumers, to purchase healthier food choices promoted in retail stores. To fulfil the aims and objectives of the proposed study a three stage research methodology was undertaken.

Stage 1 included a rapid evidence assessment (REA) to gather and synthesise the existing research in relation to healthy/less healthy promotional offers and to identify a relevant robust methodology.

Stage 2 involved the design and implementation of a fit-for-purpose audit tool to determine the current provision of food promotions consumers’ face from retail stores across NI, taking into account the urban/rural divide, areas of deprivation and region. The audit took two approaches (a) in-store and (b) online.

Stage 3 involved conducting interviews/case studies with key individuals and stakeholders in relation to NI food retail.

The final report provides a summary of the findings as well as recommendations for policy makers and retailers.


The purpose of this research was to determine the healthiness, or otherwise, of food retail promotions among NI food retailers. The in-store audit is conclusive in its finding that a balance (52.5% amber/green vs. 47.5% red) in favour of health exists among food retail promotions in NI. In addition, price-based promotions as opposed to volume-based promotions were utilised more often across the retailers. Finally, a relationship between the healthiness of a food retail promotion and its prominence was identified.

The outcome of the online audit also identified a positive balance in the healthiness of food retail promotions (53% categorised as amber/green and 47% of products categorised as red). In addition, both price-based (e.g. price reductions) and volume-based promotions (e.g. multibuys) were popular across the retailers.

The retailer interviews were conclusive in confirming that to date retailers have made good progress in maintaining and further investing in above and below the line initiatives (e.g. product reformulation, nutritional labelling, recipe cards, smart couponing etc.) to promote healthy choices to consumers. Despite a number of barriers challenging continued progress in the area of health, retailers and membership organisations all expressed the desire to collaborate with the goal of investing in current and future customers’ health.

This report identified several recommendations arising from the three stages of the investigation for retailers, statutory authorities, public health bodies, government agencies and membership organisations.