March 2013 Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 2
March 2013

Effects of Signage on Sales of Healthy Food Options in a University Student Center

Ashley Hoffman

FoodSignageCCMaking healthy eating choices as a college student can be challenging. The transition from living at home to independent living propagates these challenges for many college students. In addition, the transition from adolescence to adulthood can be associated with an increased likelihood of obesity. The National College Health Risk Behavior Survey suggests that around 35% of U.S. college students are either overweight or obese. Poor eating habits can lead to immediate health problems as well as long-term health consequences. A link exists between obesity and nutrition-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer.

College students lack a diet high in fruits and vegetables and report higher intake of high-fat and high-calorie foods, according to articles in Nutrition Research American and Journal of Health Studies. Poor diets can lead to weight gain, low energy levels, inability to concentrate, poor retention of information, and compromised test scores. Furthermore, health problems that were once linked to middle-aged people are now arising in college students. These health problems include Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol.

Obesity has been associated with food consumed at fast food restaurants. Because most college students are always on the go, they rely on fast food restaurants for quick and inexpensive meals. Many restaurants offer entrees and meals with little nutritional value. However, often restaurants try to include healthier options on their menus, such as salads, grilled chicken, and apple slices. Nevertheless, identifying healthy foods in a restaurant-style setting proves to be a challenge for many people, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported in 2006.

Numerous research studies have been conducted to examine college students’ weight and eating habits. However, there is a lack of information on marketing strategies to improve health and healthy eating options on college campuses. Furthermore, there is a lack of research on the effectiveness of suggestive selling in food service operations. To help fill this void, a study was conducted comparing and analyzing marketing techniques for promoting and selling better menu options at the Southern Illinois University–Carbondale Student Center.

Social Marketing

Social marketing is an important technique used to influence a behavioral change among consumers and may be an effective way to promote nutrition knowledge and awareness to college students. This technique capitalizes on the art of suggesting customers purchase additional items that may complement the original item. Consumers are targets of suggestive selling every day when they visit fast food restaurants and are asked to try something new on the menu or if they would like to upgrade their meal to a larger size.

Menu labeling is a form of social marketing and is a current issue in the field of dietetics, as well as the restaurant industry at large. Researchers who studied the impact of menu labeling on food choices for a 2010 American Journal of Public Health article found that calorie labels on restaurant menus impacted food choices and intake, suggesting government legislation require labels on all foods. Specific to higher education, students’ purchases of yogurt and whole fruit sales increased due to a point-of-sale nutrition labeling marketing approach, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported in 2001. In a similar study, published in a FoodSignage11990 edition of Health Education Quarterly, healthy symbols placed next to healthy menu items were shown to increase sales of these items. In 2008, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that 58.5% of the 205 college students surveyed at a dining hall used a nutrition label system, “Nutrition Bytes,” to make meal decisions.

Labels provide customers with nutrition information, and such information received at the time of service could have a positive effect on college students’ eating behaviors. According to a 2001 article in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, nutrition information at point-of-purchase may promote the sale of healthy foods to college students


During the Fall 2009 semester, the Saluki Select Healthy Eating Program was implemented in the Southern Illinois University–Carbondale Student Center to aid college students and the public in general in making healthier food choices. The Student Center is operated by a contract food service company for colleges and universities and has developed guidelines to identify the healthier food choices. These guidelines are as follows: Food items must contain less than 350 calories, with 35% or less of calories derived from fat, and have 600 mg of sodium or less. A “Saluki Silver” logo, a silver Saluki dog paw print, was placed next to the food item that indicated the healthiest food alternative on the menu. A “Saluki Select” logo, a maroon Saluki dog paw print, was placed next to food items that indicated the next best food choice on the menu. To further help customers determine what healthier options to choose, information also was available through the university Wellness Center’s website.

The student population at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale was 20,350 with 26.5% belonging to traditionally underrepresented populations (African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and/or Pacific Islander). As of the Fall 2009 semester, there were 3,921 full- and part-time on-campus employees. The Student Center is accessible to all students and staff, as well as the public.

An experimental design was employed to measure the impact of marketing techniques on the sales of Saluki Select menu items in the Student Center. The research design included one control period and two treatment periods. Menu labeling and suggestive selling were the two marketing treatments employed by this study. The control period consisted of two weeks in September 2009 in which no marketing was conducted on the Saluki Select foods. Following the control period, two treatments periods were administered: (1) the first treatment period utilized menu labeling of healthy food options at eateries, (2) the second treatment period trained employees to use suggestive selling to promote the healthy food options. Sales receipts were obtained two weeks following the control and treatment periods from selected food concepts that sold Saluki Select menu items. A “concept” is the term used for food vendors in the Student Center. Both Concept A and Concept B were popular brand restaurants. These two were chosen because they were considered quick service restaurants and attracted students who were “on the go.” Concept A included sub sandwiches, and Concept B included salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and grilled chicken club sandwiches.

Examples of the “Saluki Select” food items from Concept A included a ham and Swiss 6-inch wheat sub sandwich, a 6-inch roast beef and provolone sandwich, and a 6-inch grilled chicken teriyaki sub sandwich. Food items from Concept B included a chargrilled chicken salad, the chargrilled chicken sandwich, and the deluxe grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomato.

During the first treatment period, signage was placed at every food concept in the Student Center to inform consumers about the Saluki Select Healthy Eating Program. The signs included information on the distinction between the maroon paw prints and silver paw prints. Two weeks following the initial treatment (October 2009), sales receipts were obtained from the two food concepts.

The second treatment period was implemented beginning in January 2010. The research team trained employees at each food concept to use suggestive selling to promote the healthier options. The research team informed the employees about the Saluki Select foods, the importance of healthier eating options, and the impact on sales. Handouts with additional information about the Saluki Select Healthy Eating Program were given to the employees. Each employee was trained to ask customers at the register, “Have you tried any of the Saluki Select foods?” If the customer did not know what the Saluki Select food items were, the employees would inform the customer that these foods were the “better options” on the menus. Additionally, employees wore buttons on their uniforms that said: “Ask me about Saluki Select!” Employees were instructed to question every customer between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for a period of two weeks in February 2010. To ensure consistency, sales receipts were collected in March, two weeks after the treatment period.

During both treatment periods, signage was also displayed throughout the Student Center. Poster campaigns can be effective at increasing awareness to college students as researchers of the Energize Your Life! Campaign reported in a 2006 Journal of American College Health article. In that study, posters were noticed by 72.3% of the 1,367 students surveyed. These results proved to be very important, so much in fact, that the food service department changed its policy to offer fruit in a vending machine on campus and fruit cups as substitutes for fries in the dining hall.

Additionally, findings from the present study relate to the findings reported in a 2010 Journal of American College Health article in which a point-of-purchase intervention of healthy food items increased awareness by more than 20%. Findings also correspond with results reported in a 2008 American Journal of Health Studies, where researchers examined the effectiveness of a social norms marketing campaign at a university. In their study, awareness of alcohol-related automobile accidents increased by 51%. The FoodSignage2marketing campaign in this study reflects that of the Student Center study, with the emphasis to increase awareness of a lifestyle behavioral change. These results show the importance of poster campaigns in promoting healthier lifestyle behaviors that can last beyond college and into adulthood.

A survey instrument was developed to collect information on the demographics of individuals dining at the Student Center, before and after the treatment periods. A research team of volunteers collected the demographic data every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for two weeks between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. prior to the first treatment period. To ensure a randomized survey, each volunteer was placed at a food concept and asked every fourth customer to complete the survey.

It is important to note that there were additional food concepts in the Student Center at the time of the research study. These included a leading hamburger retailer, a leading coffee retailer, and three proprietary concepts developed by the operating contract company.

Significant Findings

A total of 400 surveys depicting demographics, university status, and healthy menu usage were collected. In terms of age, the majority of customers were between 18 and 24 (61.5%). There were slightly more men than women (52.25% and 47.75% respectively).

Several studies have shown that nutrition labels improve menu selections, in which this study aimed to accomplish. Results indicated that awareness of Saluki Select foods significantly increased after the second treatment period, which included suggestive selling. While there were no statistically significant sales differences during the control and treatment periods, purchases of healthier food items did increase during the two treatment periods. Results from a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association were similar: although point-of-purchase sales of healthier food items were not statistically significant, the sales of these healthy food items increased.


As mentioned before, the signs for Saluki Select menu items included vague information about better food options. Either a silver or maroon “paw print” was placed next to an item that was determined as “healthy.” Customers from the current study may have been more interested in selecting healthier food options if calorie counts of food items were available on these signs. Participants in a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Public Health were more likely to order and consume fewer calories when given a menu with calorie labels, as compared to menus with no calorie labels. Participants were also more likely to not order extra food items such as dessert, when the calorie labels were present. Additionally, college students chose healthier options on menu items when calorie information was present on the menu, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

A 1984 study in Behavior Modification found that calorie information placed besides a menu item was more effective than a healthy food icon placed next to the same menu items in a university cafeteria. Students’ food choices were influenced both by calorie labels on menus and a combination of healthy food icons, as well as an incentive program. Calorie counts may have an impact on what people order, consume, and their eating habits for the rest of the day. This could lead to less overconsumption of unhealthy foods and lead to a healthier lifestyle. In this study, calorie counts may have been more effective in students’ purchasing decisions.

In the current study, only signs were placed near the food concepts. Purchase selections may have been influenced with marketing materials placed throughout the Student Center. Participants from a different study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Behavior, suggested possible ways to provide point-of-purchase nutrition information to students. They suggested incorporating food wrappers, tray liners, brochures, and take-away bags. Furthermore, in 2008 the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that 40.7% of college women would like to see nutrition information and labels posted online daily for dining hall food selections. That study also indicated that posters, displays, and online information regarding nutrition labels should include messages about the connection between nutrition, diet, and health to better help dining hall patrons understand the importance of their food choices. Even though awareness of the Saluki Select Program increased significantly, additional means of promoting the program may have resulted in an even higher awareness rate.

Placement of nutrition information at each food concept may affect purchasing decisions of customers. As a 2006 study in the Journal of Nutrition Behavior reported, participants liked the idea of placing healthier menu options in a separate section of a menu or menu board to promote identification. With regard to healthier option symbols, participants felt they would find the symbol more valuable if it were to have an understandable and uniform definition.

Previous studies that addressed suggestive selling were promoting menu items other than healthy menu options to increase sales. In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Sciences, researchers discovered a 17% increase of side dishes when restaurant customers were asked if they would like to add a certain food item to their order. In the present study, suggestive selling was used to promote healthier menu selections to the benefit of the consumer rather than additional items to increase sales receipts. Findings may then indicate it is difficult to suggestively sell healthy items to the college consumer as opposed to simply additional tasty side items. Authors of a 2008 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity advised appealing to the consumers’ sense of taste rather than their sense of health. Future research incorporating suggestive selling to promote healthy menu options could emphasize the improved taste of the food item instead of the improved health benefits.

There was no statistically significant difference between the two means of food items of the two concepts in the Student Center. Possible explanations for this is that the two concepts were both popular quick-service sandwich restaurants and customers may have an idea of what they are going to order before they arrive. The 2008 International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity article reported that even calorie labels had little effect on purchasing decisions made by patrons because they regularly dined at these restaurants and already knew what they wanted to order. Restaurants should consider placing more emphasis on nutrition information at point-of-purchase if they are trying to sell healthier menu items.


In conclusion, this study found that social marketing was influential in increasing awareness of better food options at the Southern Illinois University–Carbondale Student Center. After the suggestive selling period, students were more aware of the healthy eating program on campus. Because of increased awareness, students knew they had an option to eat healthier foods. Choosing healthier food options on campus can help students obtain a healthier lifestyle and reduce their chances of obesity-related diseases.

Additionally, these eating practices could help students maintain a healthier lifestyle beyond college.

Although there was an increase in sales during the first treatment period, the two treatment periods did not produce statistically significant results. However, these findings are clinically significant because customers purchased more Saluki Select food items during the two treatment periods compared to the control period. This shows that students were willing to choose the healthier options.

Lastly, there was no statistical difference between the two types of food concepts. Signage and suggestive selling did not differ between the two food concepts, implicating the need for further research on what influences the sales of healthy food items.
The results of this study may be of use to college union professional staff and advisory boards in addition to university wellness centers and food service operators in the planning and implementation of marketing strategies in promoting healthier food choices. This study also can add to the current research on menu labeling by indicating that social marketing does, in fact, increase awareness of healthier food items.

Sylvia Smith, food and nutrition professor, Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, contributed to this article


HoffmanAshley Hoffman holds a Bachelor of Science in human nutrition and dietetics, as well as a Master of Science in food and nutrition from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. Her article is based on her master’s thesis, which she presented at the 2010 American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Her work also has appeared in food policy book reviews and various nutrition publications.