Improving the WIC Shopping Experience

Shopper with grocery cart in supermarket.

Team partners with supermarket to test “bundling” of WIC items.

Most people don’t consider grocery shopping an enjoyable experience. For moms who shop using benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), it can be downright awful. It’s often made worse by difficulty finding eligible products and dealing with a long checkout process. Add kids in tow, and it’s enough for many moms to forego re-enrolling in WIC.

But UB researchers are working on ways to improve the WIC shopping experience so customers stay in the program, including working with a Western New York-based supermarket chain on a pilot project making finding and using WIC-eligible products easier.

The team, which includes a researcher from North Carolina State University, recently published a study in the “Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition” that is among the first to examine barriers to and possible strategies for WIC shopping.

WIC provides supplemental foods and nutrition education to low-income pregnant and postpartum women with infants and children up to age 5 whose household incomes are below state-defined thresholds. The program is proven to improve children’s health, but participation isn’t great. Reports indicate that as few as 73% of infants, 38% of children and 67% of pregnant and postpartum women eligible for WIC take part.

“Poor shopping experiences can lead people to drop off WIC or not re-enroll because they feel like the time and frustration isn’t worth it. This leaves them without a benefit that we know improves children’s health,” says Lucia Leone, PhD, the study’s lead author and an SPHHP assistant professor of community health and health behavior.

Lucia Leone.

Lucia Leone

Strategies for improved experience

Researchers identified several barriers to WIC shopping, including restrictions on eligible foods, confusion at checkout when cashiers are not well trained, product availability issues especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.

For the study, researchers in 2015 conducted eight focus groups involving 63 women in Erie and Niagara counties in New York. Participants described the challenges associated with WIC and talked about strategies that can help.

One such strategy is “shelf-talkers” or special signs that denote WIC-eligible products, making them easier to find and alleviating confusion at checkout. New York State regulations, however, don’t allow most stores to use shelf-talkers, nor can retailers offer WIC-only sections.Well-trained staff, especially cashiers and store managers, also improve shopping trips by cutting down on the amount of time in a check-out line. Other mentioned strategies included having a WIC product guide available in the store and allowing WIC shoppers to use self-checkout.

Partners to improve WIC shopping

No research is currently available on the role of retailers in improving WIC redemption or retention rates. That’s why Leone and her team are piloting a project with Tops Markets on Niagara Street in Buffalo.

“The goal of this project is to make it easier to use WIC products by sharing recipes made with mostly WIC products,” Leone says. “More importantly, all those items will be ‘bundled’ together in the store so families can quickly go in and find all the WIC items they need for the recipe in one place rather than searching around the store.”

Customers won’t have to purchase all the products, but, Leone notes, they tend to purchase bundled items because of their perceived convenience. Some items in the recipe bundle will also be on sale.

Co-authors on the paper include Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University; Christina Kasprzak, SPHHP doctoral student in community health and health behavior; Samina Raja, PhD, professor of urban and regional planning in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning; and Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in pediatrics in UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.