With health and wellness arguably the hottest trend in today’s food arena, manufacturers are eagerly slapping label claims such as “natural” or “organic” on their products in hopes of capturing consumers who seek to live healthier lives, though not necessarily with consumers’ health in the best interest. Without a doubt, navigating product claims, nutrition labels and ingredients lists is both daunting and confusing for shoppers—especially those with dietary restrictions—who have few available resources to learn from and understand food nutrition. But The Kroger Co. is on a mission to make things simpler, and it has the data power to do it.
Following a soft launch in May, the Cincinnati-based retailer on Nov. 13, in Scottsdale, Ariz., officially introduced its latest wellness resource, the OptUp app, designed to help consumers make healthier purchase decisions through a seamless, gamified and personalized interface. Powered by Kroger’s data science unit, 84.51 degrees, the app leverages a whopping 10 petabytes (that’s 10 million gigabytes) of customer transaction data acquired over the past 20 years, as well as nutrition facts and ingredients lists of 170,000 different products, to determine “health” scores for individual items and shoppers.
What Is an OptUp Score?
Users begin by downloading OptUp for iOS and Android devices via the Apple App Store and Google Play store. Available across Kroger banners—including Kroger, Baker’s, City Market, Dillons Marketplace, Food4Less, Foods Co., Fred Meyer, Fry’s Marketplace, Gerbs, Jay C, King Scoopers, Metro Market, Owen’s, Pay Less Super Markets, Pick ‘n Save, QFC, Ralphs and Smith’s—users can sign up by linking their account to their Kroger Plus card, which then imports the customer’s loyalty data to determine his or her OptUp score.
Based off the user’s purchase history over the past eight weeks, the OptUp score reveals how healthy those purchases have been, and immediately increases or decreases after each purchase moving forward. To determine scores, Kroger’s team of registered dietitians enhanced a nationally recognized nutrient profiling system to help summarize the information on nutrition labels. The score is ranked from 1 to 1000, though the retailer recommends a target score of 600 or higher.
“We want people to enjoy food,” Chance Cole, VP of Kroger Health, told WGB at the OptUp launch event, held Nov. 12-14 at the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. “So you could enjoy food in a healthy lifestyle, but that probably means sometimes you're going to eat something that's not healthy, and that's OK. We're not trying to take that away from people.”
Users can track their score after each purchase and monitor how it compares to Kroger’s target score to ultimately inspire healthier purchases over time. To determine which items affected the score, users can view details of their past purchases, including price, dietary tags and the item’s nutritional score, which is ranked from 1 to 100 based on nutritional value.
Categorized by highest-, medium- and lowest-scoring foods, green items with a score of 71 or higher are the healthiest choices—lower in saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calories—and may be higher in fiber, protein or ingredients such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. Those in the medium 36-70 point range are somewhat higher in saturated fat, sodium, sugar or calories, or may have lower fiber, protein and produce content compared to those in the green category. And items with a score of 1-35 are meant to be consumed only occasionally because they are likely higher in saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calories, as well as lower in fiber, protein, and fruit or vegetable ingredients.
“If it’s in the yellow, we’re not necessarily saying ‘Don’t buy that,’” said Cole. “That’s good. Then it has the ones that are in the red, and we’re not trying to eliminate all of the red items. It’s just saying to try to make that 10% or less of what you’re purchasing.”
Ultimately, a user’s OptUp score is determined by calculating the average product score of their purchases and multiplying it by 10 to allow more flexibility for that score to increase or decrease, and let the user better visualize the impact their purchase changes have on their health.
Dubbed “a virtual assistant for healthier shopping,” OptUp also offers a scan and search feature for users to locate better-for-you alternatives and product nutrition facts when they tap an individual item. Shoppers can favorite items to remember for later, or they can add items to their virtual shopping cart by swiping left.
Kroger also plans to roll out in January in-store components to the OptUp app, including signage and reorganized product assortment based on items’ scores to help shoppers better navigate the store and inspire healthier purchases. The app has raked in more than 120,000 user downloads since its soft launch in May, and the retailer is striving to bring that number up to 1 million by mid-2019 by syncing OptUp’s digital features in-store.
Harnessing the data power of 84.51, the app is also designed to provide personalized product recommendations to help shoppers make healthier choices. By analyzing shoppers’ purchase history over the past 20 years via transactions on their loyalty cards, the app determines a customer’s food and brand preferences to make suggestions that cater specifically to that customer’s wants and needs. For instance, if a shopper routinely purchases Jif peanut butter, rather than recommending a gourmet vegan nut butter alternative, the app might suggest Jif’s reduced-fat peanut butter instead.
“We’re not going to say, ‘You’re buying Oreos today, but we recommend broccoli,’” Chance explained. “We’d recommend maybe fat-free Oreos or something that’s just a little bit of a step up, because if we make recommendations that seem completely unreasonable, there is no way you’re going to respond to that.”
While health apps are certainly nothing new, OptUP is unique in that it requires no manual input from the user. This was vital in Kroger’s development of the app, Chance said, because countless companies have launched platforms to help consumers monitor their health and track the foods they eat, but they eventually lose consumer engagement due to the inconvenience of having to enter things such as health records or calorie counts. Instead, OptUp takes the work out of the consumer’s hands by automatically tracking users’ purchases and determining products’ nutritional value, “and I think just that simplicity is one of the reasons we’re confident in its success,” Chance said.
Plus, the app offers a gamified user experience, allowing shoppers to see an immediate score impact from the items they purchase while also informing them about items’ nutrition and ingredient information in an interactive, approachable way. As a result, OptUp users scores have increased by an average of 13 points since May, Kroger executives said during the launch event.
However, the retailer also said it is striving to balance walk a fine line of gamification and competition. While many health apps have been known to result in judgment and discouragement due to unachievable goals or competition between other users, OptUp is designed not to alter a users’ diets completely, but rather slightly nudge them in the right direction toward eventually integrating healthier foods into their existing lifestyles. “There’s a balance between having that be fun and challenging, and misrepresenting some notion of a perfect score,” Chance said. “We want people to eat healthier, but we don’t want to create a scenario where it seems like a 700 is unsuccessful, when it’s very successful in our opinion.”
With a mission to offer its shoppers full product transparency, Kroger had to examine the nutritional value of its own brand products, which did not always land in the green or yellow categories. The retailer has since reformulated some of its items with the help of its registered dietitian team, and it is continuing to do so across its private label lines and in-store fresh offerings.
Still, Kroger’s own brand items are not always the better alternative, and recommending its own brand products is not the goal, Kroger executives emphasized. OptUp is designed to make healthy product recommendations regardless of the brand, even if that means steering shoppers away from Kroger items toward something else. “When we launched OptUp, you look at some of our things and you say, ‘Wait a minute, some of that doesn’t work very well. We can’t do that,’” said Chance. “Well, yes we can because that’s the truth. So how do we change? We reformulate.”
Ultimately, Kroger said it hopes to inspire food manufacturers to re-examine their own products and also reformulate to offer foods that can contribute to a healthier demographic.