Could the launch of a new campaign to tackle junk food at checkouts mean pester power has had its peak?

Fluorescent lights, the seemingly endless wandering and the failure to resist the urge of eating all the food before paying are just some aspects of many a childhood supermarket trip. Accompanying an adult while they put things you don’t care about into the trolley is probably the most boring hour of your week. Beyond fighting over whether you or your sibling gets to push the trolley this time, the perks of the supermarket are the magazines, the cereal aisle and, of course, the till.

Oh, the till. Therein lie the things in shiny wrappers your brain makes you love: characters with funny faces, a smash of bright colour and an aromatic cloud of sugar and E numbers. You needn’t the ability to read; psychologically you know it’s for you. And you want it all.

The trouble is, sweets at the till is major adult bugbear when you’re also harbouring children. While you’re packing up and paying, kids are within easy reach of these treats and they have the power to fill the last of your turn on the conveyor belt with enough chocolate to make your dentist’s eyes water. And it’s always been this way; every kid that’s ever been to a supermarket is hardwired to know that the till is the exciting bit – it’s where the gold is. But now there are signs that changes are afoot to eradicate the accepted norm of pester power (and adult impulse) in the queue.

Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), is on a mission to get rid of the junk at checkouts. “Every day we’re bombarded with messages about food and most of the messaging is unhealthy,” he says. “Retailers and manufacturers are nudging us in the wrong direction of choosing unhealthy food.”

In a recent Slimming World and DOM UK report, nearly 8 out of 10 shoppers said they were unhappy with the sale of sugary snacks and high calorie foods at the checkouts. Carolyn Pallister, Public Health Manager at Slimming World said: “More than 70% of respondents clearly felt strongly that it affected their shopping and eating habits and made it difficult to stick to a healthy eating routine. Of course we don’t think snacks and treats should be banned completely, but we’ll do anything we can to help nudge members and their families to make healthy choices more easily.”

Checkout Pass CardCFC has been in conversations with retailers for over 18 months to encourage them to remove sweets and chocolates from the tills, which are placed in prime position at child height and at pocket money prices. Its new campaign, Junk Free Checkouts, in association with the British Dietetic Association, aims to emphasise shoppers’ concerns by disseminating ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ cards via customers for the permanent removal of junk at the till. It’s hoped that this informal ‘audit’ of naming and shaming offending stores (and recognising those reversing the practice) will put more pressure on for change. Several thousand cards have already been distributed through partners, hospitals, nutrition clinics as well as directly to individual requests via the Junk Free Checkouts website. Checkout Fail CardWhat’s more, CFC’s research has shown that the practice isn’t just limited to supermarkets. Customers have sounded out WH Smiths, Boots, Superdrug, Topshop and even hospitals as main offenders.

Trials

In the year since the CFC’s Checkouts Checked Out report, the Co-Operative and Marks & Spencer have reportedly begun to display healthier snacks near tills, while Lidl has trialled ‘guilt-free lanes’ with success. But none have completely banned the junk, says Malcolm. Recently, however, Tesco announced it will be undertaking an initiative to remove sweets at self-service tills and introduce healthier items such as water, dried fruit and nuts. Importantly, the 40% trialled won’t just be at larger stores, but in Tesco Express stores too. “This is a really welcome development, as it’s the first time a supermarket is acknowledging the problem in small stores too,” says Malcolm.

And there are signs the government could be listening too. Its Responsibility Deal is the key piece of legislation that would address how junk food is promoted by retailers, albeit on a voluntary basis. Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger recently asked Secretary of State for Public Health Jane Ellison what moves the government had planned for the matter, to which she responded: “We have identified food promotion as an area for action under the Responsibility Deal, and will be discussing with the food industry actions it might take to reduce exposure to marketing and promotion of less healthy foods.”

Malcolm says: “People often say to me, ‘can’t parents just say no?’ Yes, there is a parental responsibility, but it’s completely tiring always saying no. It’s so straightforward. We want to see healthier items at tills or to see retailers cutting out food altogether in these areas. Something positive can be done. It’s not going to solve obesity crisis overnight, but it is a step forward.”

The junk isn’t at the till because of a lack of shelf space (as many retailers want you to believe), but simply for the bottom line. The Responsibility Deal will hopefully bring action, but with no timeframe in sight and on a voluntary-only basis, baskets will only continue to be topped up with chocolate bars and fizzy drinks until who knows when?

No, now must be the time to give the retailers a taste of their own medicine, and it won’t be so sweet. They want pester power? Let’s give them pester power.

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