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Extreme unction? End of the annual supermarket Easter egg bonanza | supermarkets

FFrom the towers of Easter eggs by the entrance to the ad hoc containers filled with Lindt Gold Bunnies and Creme Eggs near the checkout, it takes a lot of willpower to resist buying chocolate at the supermarket this time of year.

This potent cocktail of premium retail space, additional exhibits and deals will prompt Britons to spend an estimated £370m on calorie-laden treats over the long weekend. But this Easter will be the last supper for supermarkets and their suppliers before a crackdown on how high-fat, high-salt or high-sugar (HFSS) foods are sold in England.

In the fall, new laws, part of the government’s anti-obesity strategy, will ban the sale of thousands of unhealthy products, including chocolate bars, cookies and chips, at these lucrative outlets.

Bulk deals like “buy one get one free” or “3 for 2” on HFSS products will also be banned in what retail analyst Bryan Roberts describes as “the most significant change in supermarket operations and economics since they invented.”

Cadbury’s Eggs in Cream.
Photograph: Radharc Images/Alamy

“There’s a reason snacks and sweets are called impulse foods,” says Roberts. “They aren’t usually on someone’s shopping list, but people have gotten used to picking them up. They depend on visibility for many of their sales and that is being taken away from them. This has huge financial implications for retailers and suppliers.”

But the government faces one of the worst obesity rates in Europe, with two in three UK adults officially overweight or obese in a growing crisis costing the NHS £6 billion a year and society at large £27. billion. The pandemic has also seen a worsening of childhood obesity levels in England.

In its guide to retailers, published this month, the government says the promotional environment in supermarkets was part of the problem. “It didn’t always align with their healthy eating guidelines” and “makes it more difficult for families to make healthier choices when shopping.”

Voluntary retailer programs have been “very limited and unsuccessful” in changing the shopping environment, he says. A government ban on junk food advertising online and before 9:00 pm on television will go into effect next year.

At a time when the rising cost of living is weighing on households, these volume discounts may seem like a way to save money, but the evidence is stacking against them. They encourage people to buy and eat more than they intend.

Figures from the data firm IRI give an indication of how susceptible shoppers are to these tricks of the retail trade. It estimates that the sweeping changes could see sales of HFSS food – a long list that will include products including crisps, sweets, chocolate, cakes, chips, biscuits, pizza and ice cream – fall by £1.7bn a year. Analysts say that half of all chocolate is sold on promotion.

HFSS refers to foods that score four or more points, and beverages that score one or more, on a nutrient scorecard developed by the Food Standards Agency. Points are awarded for energy, saturated fat, sugar and sodium per 100g, and are deducted for things like fiber and protein.

Lindt & Spruengli's Golden Bunny.
Lindt & Spruengli’s Golden Bunny. Photograph: Winfried Rothermel/AP

This means that not all products in a category will be affected, and manufacturers will be able to reformulate products to avoid being penalized, something that happened quickly before the sugar tax in 2018.

So what does this reorganization mean for the weekly store? A glimpse of the future can be seen in the tests being carried out by Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

At the Tesco Extra store in Royston in Hertfordshire, instead of chocolate, shoppers are greeted with a garden compost promotion and “club card price” deals on large whiskey and gin (alcohol is unaffected by the new rules). Shoppers must participate in an Easter egg hunt if they want to purchase one.

At the ends of every aisle, the usual selection of chocolate, chips and soft drinks has been replaced with offerings on tea, coffee, canned fruits and vegetables and meal condiment kits, not to mention zero-calorie options like toilet paper and laundry detergent.

Shoppers also receive healthy eating cues as they shop. In the breakfast cereal aisle, a sign highlights “low sugar” options, like Weetabix. Elsewhere they are told that canned beans and vegetables are a “source of protein.” There’s even hope for fries fans in a section labeled “less than 100 calories.”

Tesco aims to increase its sales of healthy products, as a proportion of total sales, from the current 58% to 65% by 2025. Reporting this week on a doubling of pre-tax profits to more than £2bn, its chief executive, Ken Murphy, said it was in “good shape” before the new legislation. “We are very clear about how we are going to remarket our stores,” he said, adding that he would work with suppliers to reformulate products to make them healthier.

The coming changes are opposed within the food industry at a time when many companies are grappling with skyrocketing costs. Karen Betts, executive director of the Food and Drink Federation, said she was concerned that by implementing these measures the government is now “only increasing food price inflation.”

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The rules apply to retailers with more than 50 employees and stores larger than 2,000 square feet (186 square meters). Promotions such as ‘50% off’ or ‘save £1’ are still allowed, leaving businesses some wiggle room.

Ignacio Vazquez, senior manager of healthy markets at ShareAction, which has campaigned to get publicly traded companies including Tesco and Unilever to sell healthier food, said the impact of the new rules will depend on whether companies follow the “spirit” instead of letter of the law.

“Companies make decisions that have an impact on the products we buy and influence our choices,” he said. “This legislation is trying to encourage companies to do things differently so that consumers are encouraged to buy healthier products instead of spending more money on unhealthy foods.”

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