Shoppers are taking charge of their health like never before, and the grocery industry is favorably situated to help them do so.
“Consumer-driven health care is a trend that will only grow in prominence as more shoppers recognize and act on the personal connections they have between food selections and their health,” affirms Sue Borra, a registered dietitian and SVP of communications and strategic planning at Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “Many food retailers are capitalizing on this trend and making the transformation to be a destination for health and wellness in the community.”
“Grocers have a unique opportunity to become destinations for shoppers interested in changing their dietary habits: they are food experts, consumers trust their local store, and they have the frequency to effectively communicate with shoppers,” notes Jeff Weidauer, VP marketing and strategy at Little Rock, Ark.-based Vestcom International Inc., which offers the HealthyAisles in-store nutrition marketing program.
“Since the nation’s grocery stores understand shoppers’ need for solutions in-store, grocers are identifying their own unique strategies that bridge the gap between food and pharmacy to help support their customers’ overall wellness goals,” says Borra. “We’re witnessing more attention to health-and-wellness programs that benefit the shopper — more than 90 percent of our food retailers report programs related to community health events to healthy recipe development to cooking demonstrations to screening and counseling.”
These types of programs tie in with the idea of becoming an integral partner in wellness. “Grocers have begun positioning themselves as an extension of the health care team, with the addition of on-staff registered dietitians and chefs who lead in-store nutrition and culinary initiatives, and by offering health monitoring services like blood pressure and blood sugar screenings,” notes Jaime Schwartz Cohen, an RD and director of nutrition at Ketchum, a New York-based public relations and marketing agency. “To be seen as a healthy destination, grocers should look to offer services that align with a healthy lifestyle. This includes offering experiences like family activities, couples nights and yoga classes.”
The RD Difference
As Cohen points out, in-store registered dietitians (RDs) can make a big difference when it comes to connecting with consumers on matters of health.
“The rapidly growing role of the supermarket RD is critical to both the success of the store and its shoppers,” agrees FMI’s Borra. “Our surveys and research demonstrate how retail dietitians can leverage these shopper trends to develop a successful and competitive health-and-wellness program in their stores.”
For its part, Ketchum works closely with retail dietitians on in-store initiatives.
“Our most successful initiatives have been when we helped bridge communications and shopper marketing teams with retailers’ merchandising and RD teams,” notes Cohen. “In one example of this integrated-teams approach, we obtained a schedule for when a product was on promotion at a regional retailer and provided co-branded recipe cards to the retail RDs featuring the product as an ingredient in a recipe. Additionally, we developed a how-to guide for cross-merchandising the product on promotion with the other ingredients in the recipe. A post-survey among the retail RDs indicated that the assets and resources we provided were very well received.”
Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp., a retailer cooperative whose members operate ShopRite stores across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut, leverages the power of the RD through its Dietitian’s Selection initiative.
According to Manager of Health and Wellness Natalie Menza, herself an RD: “This program enables our in-store dietitians to curate and highlight items that give our customers ideas on how to add new, healthy foods to their meals and snacks. In addition, our team of over 125 in-store dietitians … is dedicated to answering customer questions about health and wellness, assisting them in reading product labels, and overall, giving them ideas and options for healthy meal planning.”
ShopRite RDs also stand ready to bolster the resolve of customers to improve their health. “Since January is one of the most popular times of the year to think about starting new habits, during this month we kicked of our six-week weight management series called Eat Well, Be Happy,” notes Menza. “During this program, customers — and many of our associates — sign up for group/interactive sessions where our in-store dietitians take them through education and inspiration for building and maintaining a healthy weight. The program is very popular, and we’ll be holding it again next fall.”
She adds, “I think the best way to address consumers’ wellness needs is to talk to them, be transparent and give [them] what they need and want,” although cautioning that “education without inspiration is just knowledge without action.”
Accordingly, “our in-store dietitians work to not only tell customers about health-and-wellness initiatives,” Menza says, “but show them how easy it is to make healthy eating choices a part of their everyday lives through education and in-store demos.”
According to Vestcom’s Weidauer, “A consistent message throughout the store — ideally at the shelf edge where the purchase decision is made — is the first step” for a retailer to become a health-and-wellness destination, and an excellent way to communicate that message is through shelf tags and signage.
ShopRite, for one, employs “prominent shelf tags that call out specific attributes like ‘low sodium,’ ‘heart healthy,’ ‘lactose-free’ or ‘gluten-free,’” says Menza, adding that the Dietitian’s Selection program also makes use of distinct signage.
Meanwhile, Weidauer describes HealthyAisles, currently in more than 13,000 stores operated by 35-plus retailers, as “a white-label solution based on FDA and USDA guidelines that delivers relevant product attributes to shoppers at the shelf edge, [using] standard terms like ‘low sodium,’ ‘gluten-free’ and ‘heart healthy’ to define up to three attributes on a shelf tag. With more than 70 available attributes, retailers can offer a custom solution to shoppers that helps them find the products they are looking for.”
According to Weidauer, “Feedback from grocers and shoppers has been consistently positive, praising the ease of use, customizable nature and alignment with government guidelines.”
He emphasizes, however, that healthy messaging must be present even in those parts of the store less associated with superior nutrition: “Include all departments, [among them] center store and frozen, not just the fresh perimeter.”
Still, the perimeter is a great place to start, particularly produce, since it’s often the first section shoppers encounter when entering a store.
“Shoppers judge a retailer’s commitment to their wellness by the quality and range of their fresh offerings,” observes Carl Jorgensen, director, global consumer strategy — wellness at Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon Worldwide. “If the customer sees plenty of organic fruits and vegetables, including superfoods that are called out and described, the grocer is identified as a healthy destination.”
Besides informing customers about the nutritional attributes of produce, grocers should tell them where it’s from. “‘Local’ is associated with fresher, healthier food, and the local claim is most important in the produce department,” says Jorgensen, citing a recent Harris Poll. “Narratives and visuals about the farmers and their growing methods add to the healthy positioning.”
With the right program in place, produce can appeal to even the youngest, pickiest consumers. “We just ended a very successful 2015 where we introduced our new Kids Club, which is a loyalty-based program that encourages shoppers to purchase at least two of our produce partners’ items in order to receive a receipt code to join the Produce for Kids Club,” observes Trish James, VP at Orlando, Fla.-based Produce for Kids.
“Shoppers entered their code at ProduceforKidsClub.com, and then received a complete welcome kit in the mail to get their family started on a healthy path in the kitchen. The welcome packet includes coupons from partner produce companies to encourage further purchase and consumption of these items. In 2016, we will execute Kids Club programs with both Niemann Foods and Harps Food Stores. Our flagship campaigns will continue in 2016 with added educational elements for shoppers.”
As regards merchandising, James asserts: “We feel strongly about offering a quick and healthy meal solution to shoppers through a combination cooler case where all ingredients are available. It’s also important to have fresh-cut produce items accessible to busy shoppers who are looking for healthy options, but don’t have a lot of time to prep items. The fresh-cut area is also where families who are involved in spring/summer sports will grab what they can to take along to a game or event.”
Beyond produce, the National Turkey Federation (NTF), based in Washington, D.C., recommends that supermarkets feature an easy-to-prepare meal solution/recipe of the week that meets healthy criteria, make it affordable by offering temporary price reductions on at least one or two key ingredients, merchandise the ingredients together for convenience and offer recipe sampling during high-traffic hours.
Registered dietitian/nutritionist Karen Buch, an NTF adviser and PG columnist, suggests cross-merchandising all of the ingredients needed to make a healthful Turkey Chili by displaying 99 percent lean ground turkey and bagged cheese shreds in a cold case, with shelf-stable items such as canned beans, onions, garlic, jalapeño peppers and spices nearby. Further, to make sure people know how to make the dish at home, stores should provide recipe cards that feature an appetizing recipe photo, simple prep steps and a link to an instructional video.
Frozen — and Shelf-stable — Assets
The frozen food section also provides opportunities for suppliers to team up with grocers to help consumers get and stay healthy.
“We continuously participate in and support — including sales pricing — in-store and other consumer education-oriented programs,” says Amy Lotker, owner/EVP of sales and marketing at Delray Beach, Fla.-based Better For You Foods LLC, a maker of frozen pizzas crafted from whole grains and featuring fewer calories and less fat, cholesterol and sodium than competing products. “Manufacturers have a responsibility to educate grocers about why they’ve chosen to produce items with a healthier nutrition profile — and why this is important to the consumer. Likewise, we need to educate grocers about the healthy behaviors and trends we’re satisfying, so that they know how to properly communicate benefits to consumers.”
The same holds true in center store, which is often unfairly maligned as a section with few healthy choices.
“Companies like ConAgra are well positioned to help grocers promote health by providing health-focused foods across meal and snack categories,” notes Kristin Reimers, director of nutrition at the Omaha, Neb.-based company, which offers foods in the frozen and center store categories. “Successful manufacturers and retailers must be partners in the endeavor to provide consumers a wide variety of foods to be enjoyed across all eating occasions, with a focus on the values we share with consumers: safe and wholesome food, pleasure, transparency, and health.”
According to Nicolas Martinez, ConAgra’s director, shopper insights, it’s “[c]ritical hat retailers have category assortments that more completely meet the different and relevant health needs of their shoppers,” suggesting that grocers establish locations within stores where shoppers can more easily find all of the options elated to a specific health need, like natural/gluten-free/organic. He adds that emerging retail concepts are increasingly playing up the nutrition angle, pointing to “new store formats focused on driving specific experiences around healthy and fresh eating.”
Education is especially important for products still building a following, such as non-GMO Certified Amrita Bars, which are made with organic dates, seeds and plant-based protein; free of the top allergens; and packed with superfoods like chia seeds, coconut, maca and sunflower seeds.
Arshad Bahl, CEO and founder of Pleasantville, N.Y.-based Amrita Health Foods, notes that manufacturers can help retailers promote healthy products by “spending the time to educate the staff at the ground level on how to listen to customers’ requests and concerns, and suggest … better alternatives.”
That level of teamwork is here to stay. “Retailers and manufacturers will continue to play a symbiotic role in addressing consumers’ health concerns, with the manufacturer innovating with new products that meet consumer needs, and the retailer evolving their offer to provide services that align with a healthier lifestyle,” predicts Ketchum’s Cohen.
But the quest for health doesn’t involve just grocers and suppliers, as important as they can be in engaging consumers on the subject and keeping them on track.
“The way forward is for retailers and manufacturers to position themselves as trusted partners in their customers’ wellness journey,” advises Daymon’s Jorgensen. “Retailers need to understand that journey so well that they know what their customers want and need before they walk in the store. This also means engaging and partnering with wellness communities beyond the store, such as with fitness groups, local food networks, and environmental groups that are making the connections between individual health and global sustainability. This opportunity also includes groups with ethical concerns around food deserts, fair farm labor and animal welfare.”
To that point, “grocers must recognize that what ‘healthy’ means to consumers has evolved,” observes Cohen. “According to Ketchum’s ‘Food 2020,’ the firm’s proprietary consumer research project now in its fourth wave, healthy eating encompasses factors beyond a balanced meal, such as where and how food is grown, how it’s packaged and labeled, and how a company treats the environment and their employees.”
As the idea of health continues to evolve, the grocery industry must ensure it remains top of mind for consumers interested in living their best life by offering the right products, support and information.
With all that in mind, what will the average health-focused grocery store of tomorrow look like? “I am imagining a scenario in which you go to your local supermarket to stock up on provisions for the week, and while there, you get your healthy prepared dinner for the evening meal, your prescriptions refilled, your blood pressure checked and recorded in your medical file — triggering a hypertension consult with a registered dietitian who makes some food recommendations to complement your medicines,” says FMI’s Borra. “For many food retailers, this is all happening now.”
“The rapidly growing role of the supermarket RD is critical to both the success of the store and its shoppers.”
—Sue Borra, Food Marketing Institute
“Shoppers judge a retailer’s commitment to their wellness by the quality and range of their fresh offerings.”
—Carl Jorgensen, Daymon Worldwide
“Retailers and manufacturers will continue to play a symbiotic role in addressing consumers’ health concerns.”
—Jaime Schwartz Cohen, Ketchum