Scientists discovered that when healthy vending machine snacks were offered for sale, along with information about their nutritional content and promotional items, more people bought them.
You are what you eat. But did you ever stop to think if the vending-machine product you’ve chosen represents the best health outcome for you?
Yale University researchers wanted to find out if stocking vending machines with healthy snack and beverage choices would result in greater sales of such products. To that end, they selected 56 vending machines around a university campus, 28 for snacks and 28 for beverages, located next to each other in libraries, departmental buildings with classrooms, dormitories and in administrative buildings to reach a cross section of students, faculty and staff.
They wondered if various combinations of promotions and pricing, along with offering products meeting the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s FitPick nutritional standards, would yield data showing people chose healthier items compared with traditional items, like candy, cookies and sugary sodas, normally placed in such machines.
The study ran for five months, between February and June, inclusive, 2015.Its results were compared with findings from the same time period a year earlier.
Some snack vending machines were stocked exclusively with FitPick-endorsed products like Nature Valley Granola Bars; Baked Lays Potato Chips and cashews from Kar’s Nuts, for example. Others held about 70% of the commonly found high-fat, high-sugar, high salt and empty-calorie snacks, in addition to nearly 30% of contents considered to be healthy.
Nutritional/promotional signage indicated the ingredient content of the machines’ FitPick items and wording designed to encourage the sale of such a product. Some signs on random machines offered price reductions for these more nutritionally sound foods. The same criteria were applied to beverage vending machines stocked with water, carbonated diet beverages and unsweetened iced tea and also to machines full of sugary sodas.
Once monthly, the researchers received revenue and sales results for each of the snack and the beverage machines. They examined 2014 and the 2015 results for the products and the machines to determine if the combinations of product selection, signage and pricing had altered consumer choices.
The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published the study online in February 2017 and printed it in its July 2017 volume 117.
In the snack line, the scientists discovered that people chose FitPick products more frequently than other snacks, but that overall revenue decreased, likely due to price reductions, regardless of the signage. In the beverage line, they learned nutritional guidelines led to more purchases; but that when pricing and promotion were included for products, the sales increased.
Looking at one product variable, in 2015, water was the preferred beverage sold from vending machines, the data revealed.
The scientists learned the combination of promotional signage and nutritional guidelines tended to influence people to buy the healthy vending machine snacks. And they cited the words “health priming,” referring to elements like consumer exposure to sights and sounds, as influencing buying behavior.
The study’s strengths are many: It remains foremost in its field by virtue of the large vending-machine sample; its multiple variables tested in a variety of combinations; its length; the degree to which the product data was analyzed, and the breakdown of revenue generated by machine.
A weakness, the researchers acknowledged, was the fact the machines’ novelty products may have influenced consumer choices. They also mentioned the products, while billed as healthy, per the FitPick criteria, simply may be healthier choices than the very high-sugar, -fat and –salt products routinely offered for sale in vending machines.
Thus, making healthy vending machine snack choices does provide the consumer with a pathway toward increased nutrition.
Written by Susan Mercer Hinrichs, MA, MBA, CPhT
Reference: Health Promotion and Healthier Products Increase Vending Purchases: A Randomized Factorial Trial
Authors: Sophia V. Hua, MPH; Lisa Kimmel, MS, RD; Michael Van Emmenes; Rafi Taherian; Geraldine Remer; Adam Millman, and Jeannette R. Ickovics, PhD