Consumer data research team earn ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize

A team of researchers from the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) have been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize for supporting healthier consumer habits.

They won the award in recognition of the work they are doing to improve access to healthy and sustainable diets for customers of major food retailers.

The ESRC-funded Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) is based at the University of Leeds.

Their Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics Team, led by Professor Michelle Morris, collaborated with major retailers including Asda and Sainsbury’s to analyse their data, for example from shopping transactions and loyalty cards.

They used the data to test interventions that promote healthy and sustainable diets.

Insights from the team, which included Dr Stephen Clark, Dr Emily Ennis, Dr Vicki Jenneson and Dr Francesca Pontin, have benefited retailers by giving them evidence of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to encouraging healthy consumer behaviour.

“We are delighted that our research has delivered real-world impact and to be recognised as winners by ESRC in this way is brilliant,” said Professor Morris.

“Our work in the Business and Enterprise category has delivered impact within business but importantly to communities that are most in need of support to access healthy, sustainable and affordable food.

“This work has been a result of effort from a diverse team at the University of Leeds and our partners. We hope that it inspires others to play their part in research that makes a difference.”

Watch the team’s video ‘Helping food retailers enable healthier, more sustainable diets’ on YouTube.

ESRC supermarket  data research group

Dr Francesca Pontin, Dr Victoria Jenneson, Professor Michelle Morris and Dr Emily Ennis.

About the project

Professor Michelle Morris explains: “Traditionally, people’s dietary habits have been recorded through surveys reporting what they have eaten, but this provided limited data to inform national policies.

“Retailers were reluctant to share more valuable data about shopping patterns due to commercial sensitivities.

“This project enabled us to build industry relationships and gain access to data sources, such as loyalty cards.”

The research started in 2017 with a single supermarket partner.

In 2020, the team was invited to collaborate with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), an organisation working with the food industry to deliver social impact, whose Industry Nutrition Strategy Group (INSG) members represent more than 11,500 UK food stores and account for over 90% of take-home food sales.

The partnership enabled the researchers to run a series of in-store and online behaviour change trials with four UK food retailers.

The team worked with supermarket partners to change the in-store environment, experimenting with signposting, product placement and incentivisation.

They then analysed transaction records to understand which changes positively impacted purchasing patterns.

Hannah Skeggs, Senior Health & Sustainable Diets Manager, IGD said of the partnership: “It has been a privilege for IGD to partner with the Consumer Research Data Centre to evaluate real-life trials in supermarkets across UK.

“Winning this award is a fantastic credit to the teams’ hard work, innovative data products and exceptional collaboration. We look forward to continuing our partnership together with the ambition of making healthy and sustainable diets, easy and accessible for everyone.”

Impact of the project

Insights from the research have helped food retailers introduce changes that encourage people to make healthier and more sustainable shopping choices, including using price to incentivise customers to eat more fruit and vegetables, increasing the variety of meat-free products and extending access to support for those most in need.

The team’s reputation for robust data governance and ethical data use has made retailers feel confident in both sharing insights and best practice across the sector and advocating for other retailers to be part of the collaboration. 

The project has also contributed to the growing capacity for health analytics within the sector, says Dr Ennis: “Our ways of working have demonstrated to the food retail sector the value of academic expertise in approaching a problem and analysing data and shown academic researchers the value of industry experience.

“This exchange of skills and knowledge has allowed us to effectively upskill the data and nutrition workforce.”

Informing retail strategies

The team’s insights have changed how and what products are available from retailers, as well as enabling retailers to make informed cost-benefit analyses and economic decisions around how best to support their customers.

A trial changing the placement of meat alternatives at Asda, for example, resulted in a decrease in sales.

The company has committed to expanding its vegan range by approximately 50% and is exploring which interventions will influence shoppers to make more meat-free choices.

Beth Fowler, Nutrition & Health Strategy Manager at Asda, commented: “Our collaboration with Professor Morris and the Consumer Data Research Centre team has enabled Asda to test and understand the impact of merchandising on consumer food choice, in a real-world supermarket setting.

“Their expert insights were used to scope, shape, implement and evaluate the trial.

“Using the data and results from the trials we ran with Professor Morris’ team, we have been able to influence decision-making within the business to ensure our Plant-Based range of meat alternatives are accessible for customers.”

Shifting shopping patterns

The introduction of interventions that shift shopping patterns towards healthier diets means consumers have also benefited from the team’s research.

The work led to sector-wide transformations, providing insights to retailers on the effectiveness of behaviour-change trials that encourage healthy and sustainable diets, particularly for communities most in need.

For example, the team analysed how effective the Sainsbury’s Healthy Start voucher top-up scheme had been in supporting pregnant women and children with access to healthy nutrition.

Analysis showed that shoppers increased the number of fruits and vegetables in their baskets by an average of 13 more portions and bought more products in line with the Eatwell Guide.

Nilani Sritharan, Group Head of Healthy & Sustainable Diets for Sainsbury’s explained: ‘Sainsbury’s experience of working with Michelle and her team has been excellent.

“They have pushed boundaries in how the food industry collaborates with academia and influenced business decisions within Sainsbury’s and choices available to our customers.

“Using the data and results from the trials we ran with Michelle’s team, we have been able to influence commercial decisions within the business related to expanding the top-up scheme for Healthy Start Vouchers and the pricing of fruit and vegetables through Nectar Prices and Aldi Price Match.”

Future work

Through the co-production of research, we have demonstrated to the retail sector the depth of academic insight available and shown academic researchers the value of industry expertise in delivering true and lasting real-world change.

Our research team’s reputation for robust data governance has made retailers feel confident in both sharing our insights and best practices across the sector and advocating for other retailers to be part of our collaboration.

This collaboration is ongoing and we are excited about the possibility of future trials with current and new partners in the food system.

In addition to trials, the Nutrition and Lifestyle Analytics team will be using retail transaction data to evaluate the impact of national policies, such as the government legislation to restrict the promotion of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.

Learn more

Watch the team’s video ‘Helping food retailers enable healthier, more sustainable diets’ on YouTube

Visit the Consumer Data Research Centre website

Visit the Smart Data Research UK website

The Affordable Food For All campaign