Special Report: Gluten Free: From Stock To Sale

Need-to-know details when retailing gluten-free products.

It’s hard to ignore the lure of glutenfree retail. With a market valued at $20 billion and climbing, according to the market research firm SPINS, gluten-free foods are still on the upswing—and with increasing diagnoses of celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders, it’s a “trend” that’s anything but fleeting.

Gluten free is a natural fit for specialty and health food retailers looking to expand their options or simply provide what customers are requesting. But due to its primary function as a treatment for serious medical conditions, gluten-free food also carries a high degree of responsibility. The most successful retailers are those who preserve the customer’s safety and peace of mind, and independent stores are in a prime spot to gain an edge over national retail brands by delivering this superior service.

Inventory and Storage 

Gluten-free retail starts with knowing your approach and understanding your customers’ needs. These two factors will largely influence which products you introduce to your shelves. There are thousands of gluten-free products on the market, and each one has different functions and attributes.

Are you looking for one-to-one replacements for novice cooks, like boxed cake mixes and snack foods? Are your customers adventurous chefs who make their own flour blends and embrace new types of grains? Poll your customers to find out which glutenfree products are most in demand, and start from there.

To stay ahead of your customers, read gluten-free product review blogs and sign up for alerts from your favorite manufacturers. These sources will often announce new products and break trends before they reach consumers.

Once you identify which types of products to stock, look for brands that are certified gluten free. All gluten-free products are not created equal, so gluten-free certification ensures that manufacturers are taking the right precautions to offer gluten-free products that are safe for customers with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders.

Until this year, gluten-free labeling was largely unregulated, so food safety has been a major concern among gluten-free consumers. As of August 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is enforcing a new gluten-free labeling rule that sets standards for gluten-free safety. However, the new rule does not define protocols, such as testing, to ensure that these standards are met.

Gluten-free certification fills this gap by requiring manufacturers to take specific steps to ensure gluten-free products are safe. The leading gluten-free certifications are associated with celiac disease organizations, such as the Gluten-Free Certification Program endorsed by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) and the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA).

Certified gluten-free products are often easy to identify; the majority of manufacturers place the seal on product packages or their website. If a product isn’t certified, it doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe; just make sure to do your research and ask about their gluten-free safety protocols. It also helps to talk to manufacturers about any special storage instructions for their products, as you are accountable for maintaining safety and quality once the products arrive.

Storage instructions can vary from product to product. Many gluten-free products are shelf-stable, but some will need to be refrigerated or frozen. For safety, the most ideal arrangement is to store gluten-free products in a separate area to eliminate the risk of gluten exposure. If a separate area isn’t available, then store gluten-free products on the top shelf; this avoids the risk of having gluten-containing particles drip, drop, or float down on top of glutenfree food.

On the Shelf 

One of the biggest debates in glutenfree retail is whether it’s best to place gluten-free products in a dedicated aisle, or distribute them throughout the store (i.e. gluten-free pasta in the pasta aisle). There are merits to each approach, and it ultimately depends on your vision for the customer experience.

A dedicated gluten-free section is best for those who want ease and convenience. Gluten-free shopping can be overwhelming for those who are new to the diet, especially those who have been diagnosed with a health condition.
A dedicated gluten-free section gives these customers a safety zone where they can shop more freely. Even many people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity prefer dedicated gluten-free sections because it takes some of the guesswork out of selecting products.

One challenge with having a glutenfree section is that the accountability for selecting and placing products properly falls to the management and staff. Training is essential to ensure that employees know, for example, that some types of corn cereal contain barley malt and therefore are not gluten-free. While all customers should take the responsibility to check ingredients on each label, many will expect that your store has already vetted the products.

A similar challenge is that customers may think that anything beyond the gluten-free aisle is not safe to eat. So, a box of rice noodles that meet the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) standards for glutenfree safety may be overlooked if it’s placed in an aisle for Asian ingredients.

Some customers prefer to see gluten-free products distributed throughout the store. This is beneficial for crossover items that suit several needs, like products that are gluten-, dairy- and nut-free, vegetarian and organic. The distributed approach also makes it easy for customers to find gluten-free versions of their favorite foods, like gluten-free piecrusts and chicken nuggets. If you already carry a majority of gluten-free products, it may simply come down to logistics: Are there too many items to fit in just one section?

Staff accountability is just as critical with the distribution approach. Many brands use similar packaging for their gluten-free and gluten-containing versions of products, so shelf tags should be used accurately and clearly to flag which items are gluten free. A misplaced tag can send customers home with the wrong product, which can be dangerous to their health.

If you choose to intermingle glutenfree and gluten-containing products on shelves, follow the same protocols as you do for storage: stock gluten-free items on the top shelf to limit the risk of gluten exposure. Never use bulk bins for loose gluten-free foods such as grains or nuts—the risk of cross contact with gluten-containing bins is too high.

No matter which way you display your gluten-free products, remember to be mindful of shelf life. Some glutenfree products may not sell as quickly as others, so monitor the expiration dates and take note of which products are left over—it’s also a smart way to see if your inventory is worth the investment.

Customer Service 

When gluten-free customers go grocery shopping, they’re not just looking for products, they’re looking for a welcoming, confident experience. Good customer service, is therefore one of the biggest differentiators in gluten-free retail.

Managers and staff should make it a goal to be a resource for customers. That means understanding what gluten is and the variety of reasons why a customer may be eating gluten-free. It means being able to read labels to check for potential gluten ingredients and offering recommendations for gluten-free alternatives. Some stores will even offer printed copies of glutenfree recipes and product reviews.

Training programs can help your managers and staff learn the basics and feel prepared to answer customers’ questions. For medical advice and tough gluten-free topics, lean on celiac disease organizations. For example, NFCA sends brochures about celiac disease symptoms, family testing, glutenfree diet tips, and a Getting Started Guide to shops and stores that request resources.

Gluten-free tours have become popular in recent years, and they’re a great way to build a relationship with your customers while giving them valuable guidance about the foods you carry.

Essentially, it’s a matter of leading the group around to various parts of your store where they can find gluten-free items, or an in-depth look at your gluten-free section with spotlights on your favorite products.

Larger grocery chains have an entire staff of dietitians dedicated to this work because they can offer nutrition and health advice while leading groups around the store. If you’re working with fewer resources, consider inviting a local dietitian who specializes in the gluten-free diet to be a partner on your tours. If a medical expert isn’t available, have a list of celiac disease organizations and research centers on hand so you can direct customers to trusted medical information.

Like grocery tours, free samples are another way to help gluten-free customers feel welcome and comfortable at your store, but they also present the greatest risk. If you offer samples of a gluten-free product, customers will expect each bite to be gluten-free. That means if it’s a dip, serve it on a gluten-free cracker or celery stalk; if it’s a soup, serve it with a cube of glutenfree bread. Most importantly, avoid sampling gluten-free and gluten-containing foods at the same time. The risk of cross-contact is too great, especially when the same hands are reaching for each food.

If any staff members will be handling food, whether it’s for sampling, bakery, or a prepared foods section, it’s best to register for gluten-free safety training. Restaurant staffs across the nation have implemented gluten-free protocols through the NFCA GREAT Kitchens program

(www.celiaccentral.org/kitchens), and the lessons easily and effectively transfer to in-store food handling.

Get Noticed 

Finally, there’s the matter of marketing your gluten-free inventory. Sampling days and gluten-free tours are two ways to capture customers once they’re in the store, but first you need to make yourself known. Here are a few simple ideas:

• Post a list of the gluten-free products or brands that you carry on your website. If there are too many to list, then highlight the newest arrivals.

• Contact local support groups.

Invite members on one of your grocery tours, or offer to bring some of your favorite products to a meeting.

• Promote your gluten-free products to local restaurants. Some restaurants that offer gluten-free options will buy their ingredients at local stores because they don’t need enough for a bulk order. Become a go-to stop for the chefs, and ask them to recommend your store to gluten-free customers.

• Celebrate Celiac Awareness Month. Plan a special event each May to foster your connection with the celiac disease community. If a local hospital or health center is hosting an awareness event or gluten-free fair, register for a booth.

One of the strongest tools in the gluten-free community is word of mouth. A single interaction with one customer can trigger a boom in traffic. Alternatively, a negative customer experience can deter others from visiting your store. Remember to uphold safety at all times to ensure that your customers become frequent shoppers.