Consider for a moment Kate Spade launching her newest creations by securing placement in every flea market in America. What a ludicrous suggestion, you say! The fashion industry has long recognized the need to channel its most sophisticated offerings into stores where the customer experience can match the quality and price of the item.

But the food industry's version of designer bags, functional foods, are launched into mainstream supermarkets. The expectation is that the consumer will figure out why she needs to pay a hefty price to enable her to live a longer life. How many of us wander the shopping centers looking for the elixir of life? Although supermarkets fill an important role in our society by distributing food on a mass scale, they are not a good place to educate the consumer about the functional benefits of food. The market is a great place for shoppers to compare prices, making it even more unsuitable for functional foods.

Upscale Products in Mainstream Markets

We spend millions discovering a bioactive; we put it through clinical trials and then through regulatory approval channels to obtain health claims that are difficult to explain. To get a return on our investment, we frequently need to offer the product at a premium price. We then place the product in an environment that all shoppers know is great for competitive prices and that does an awful job of providing information. If you don't believe me, go to your local market, pick your favorite functional food and try to find someone in the store who will explain why you should buy it!

In comparison, think about successful functional foods and where they began life. Energy bars were established in bike shops and grew to a sizeable category before entering the supermarket. In specialty outlets, the main point of a transaction is functionality—not price. Can that type of transactional information happen for a functional food in a supermarket? The phytosterol-containing spreads have experienced this difficulty, which has lead to a review of their go-to-market strategy.

What are the options that can eventually lead a functional food to mass distribution?

A wellness product can first be introduced in drug and health food stores. Along with this approach, consideration could be given to working with the huge network of professional advisors in integrative medicine. The dry pet food market was largely built by brands that were promoted entirely to veterinarians. Nutritional supplements were a sizeable business in hospitals long before they were offered through grocery stores.

The Internet provides interesting ways to offer wellness products within a healthy living context. Check out to see how one start-up is providing an opportunity for wellness products to reach consumers through health practitioners.

The key is not to forget the importance of the distribution channel when introducing a product. The temptation to distribute too wide, too early should be balanced against consumer needs and brand resiliency. And, if you are still not convinced, go back and look at how fashion brands tackle distribution.