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The Future of Wellness


Progressive Grocer’s annual Retail Dietitian Symposium, held May 23–24, offered ideas on how to connect with shoppers in search of guidance on the best choices at the grocery store for health and wellness, outlined the latest food and shopping trends, and honored RDs for their innovative consumer outreach efforts.

More than 180 people attended the two-day symposium, held at Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel, including more than 50 dietitians from leading supermarket retailers, along with a host of suppliers of better-for-you products and services. Among the general-session topics on the first day were consumer segmentation, food traceability, farm-to-fork stories and diet plans.

Additionally, results of PG’s annual retail dietitian survey were revealed at the event.

Shopper Trends

John Essegian, EVP at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based TNS Landis, offered insights on key consumer segments, their motivators, and how the retailer industry can address them. According to Essegian, consumers can be divided into four broad categories along the food-health relationship continuum:

  • Nonchalant: Health-satisfied folks, including “On the Run Grazers,” motivated by speed and convenience but lacking cooking prowess, and “Do As I Pleasers,” motivated by control and contentment.
  • Satisfied: Encompassing “Healthy Foodies” (adventurous cooks) and “Busy Belongers” (adventurous noncooks who crave convenience).
  • Striving: Folks not satisfied with their health and weight, including “Wellness Activists” (cooks aiming for personal improvement) and “Habitual Pragmatists” (noncooks seeking familiarity and to remove guilt).
  • Struggling: “Comfort Cravers” (adventurous cooks seeking pleasure) and Tired Survivors (unadventurous noncooks seeking stress relief).

Kristin Hoddy, health and wellness director at Schaumburg, Ill.-based SPINS, and Kora Lazarski, SPINS’ strategic alliance manager, discussed the retail departments experiencing the most disruption from changing consumer demand. Identified as mega-trends driving growth across most grocery categories: organic, gluten-free, vegan and Paleo. Noting that shoppers aren’t waiting for research to validate their beliefs, the speakers advised RDs to use sales data to understand what’s top of mind for shoppers.

Consumers are willing to pay more for products boasting traceability, observed Tejas Bhatt, director of the Global Food Traceability Center at the Institute of Food Technologists, in Chicago.

Driving the desire for traceability, according to Bhatt: conscious consumers wanting more information about health; “citizen science,” driven by social media and beliefs over facts; individualized needs; and technology. “The food system today is a global supply chain,” he said. “Almost nothing is truly local.”

Retail Health and Wellness Evolves

A panel of executives discussed the changing retail landscape, shifts in wellness priorities, the impact of consumer trends, and the evolving roles and career paths of RDs.

The panel consisted of Sheri Steinbach, nutrition manager at Meijer Inc.; Mary Snell, director of nutrition and wellness at Marsh Supermarkets; and Eileen Myers, VP of retail dietetics at Kroger, and was moderated by symposium emcee Karen Buch, of Nutrition Connections LLC, and PG wellness columnist.

How do RDs support their company’s goals? At Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer, it’s about “focusing on the customer first,” Steinbach said, as well as including associates “and empowering them to know about our health-and-wellness resources so they can be spokespeople.”

According to Snell, the objective of Indianapolis-based Marsh is to be “the health-and-wellness leader of the community,” while Myers noted that Cincinnati-based Kroger is committed to improving community health through strategic partnerships such as its acquisition of Little Clinics for in-store wellness services.

Shifts in retailers’ wellness strategies include more RD access to departments across the store and RDs’ influence on selection through working with category managers and buyers. “We’re doing more to help the consumer understand food,” Myers said.

Other sessions focused on fact versus myth on artificial sweeteners, how to guide consumers on FODMAP diet plans (avoiding foods with short-chain carbohydrates that cause digestion problems), and telling farm-to-fork stories to better help shoppers connect with the food they buy.

Honoring Outreach

Second-day highlights included PG’s first Outreach Innovation Awards, honoring programs that included initiatives from store tours to sampling, website messaging and community outreach, all aimed at creating value for their customers, retail associates and banners.

Additionally, PG has joined forces with the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, whose president/CEO, “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert, presented its RD of the Year Award to Stacy Bates, of San Antonio-based H-E-B.

Industry Trends Impacting RD Growth

Harry Stagnito, board member of PG parent Stagnito Business Information + Edgell Communications, presented this session focusing on the ongoing transformation of the retail grocery industry and highlighting issues illustrating the advantages RDs bring to their companies.

Key to the future of RDs:

  • The Store of Tomorrow: Industry consolidation, upscale regional retailers, products catering to local demographics, thematic stores with chef-driven prepared foods, and health-and-wellness centers.
  • Wellness Isn’t Health: The difference between health (science and function) and wellness (mind, body and spirit). Stagnito urged retailers to “understand how to promote health and wellness” to control the discussion amid the conflicting information flooding mass and social media, noting that shoppers make decisions “by emotion supported by logic.”
  • Practical Insights and Technology: Personalization and interactivity through such vehicles as social media, shopper insights and loyalty programs.
  • Internal Collaboration: Aligning health and wellness with the corporate mission, and working with category managers and pharmacists on common goals.

RD Survey Results

Lempert and PG Editor-in-Chief Jim Dudlicek led an audience discussion of the highlights from PG’s latest annual retail dietitian survey. The lively exchange examined “what’s next” as RDs shared their experiences with positioning their role, creating return on investment (ROI) for their banners, and how they connect with shoppers, store associates and communities.

Key points of the survey include:

  • Half of responding retailers report that their company has RDs, with an average of 25 per company. Among those not reporting an RD position, 19 percent say they had other nutrition positions, and 4 percent say there were plans to add the position in the next year.
  • The most frequently reported methods used to promote health, wellness and nutrition: company website, signage, circulars and product sampling.
  • RDs have the greatest impact through individual and group counseling, in-store consultations, in-store clinics, and tours. Most popular wellness class topics are basic nutrition, weight management, and heart-healthy and gluten-free eating.
  • Most-reported RD responsibilities: answering consumers’ questions, working with community partners, and employee nutrition education.
  • In terms of progress of RD programs, 37 percent say they’re “in the game, see the merits and continue to build the program”; 21 percent are “just getting started”; and 15 percent are “very advanced” so customers associate their banner with healthy products and support.

Among retailers operating more than 50 stores, RDs are located mostly at headquarters (50 percent) or at both HQ and store level (41 percent). Among smaller operators, the position is more likely to be located at store level.

As part of the ongoing evolution of this relatively new position, grocers still struggle with exactly where to place the RD position within their operations. According to survey results, RDs most frequently are included in health and wellness (57 percent), followed by pharmacy (20 percent), and marketing/merchandising (13 percent). The RD position is administered most frequently at the corporate level (48 percent) or at both the corporate and store level (37 percent).

A vast majority of respondents — 86 percent — said their RDs were responsible for establishing or maintaining community relationships, most frequently with schools and hospitals/clinics.

Retailers are making inroads in involving RDs in purchasing decisions; 84 percent of respondents report that their RDs work with product managers. Forty-six percent report that they are working with product managers on promotions, 45 percent on new product decisions, and 42 percent on advertising/signage.

As far as corporate decisions are concerned, RDs reportedly influence mainly the areas of employee health programs and decisions to carry or delete specific product categories.

Successes and Challenges

The most frequently mentioned measures of RD success or ROI are customer satisfaction, program participation, social media impressions and general volume of customer engagement.

Among challenges faced in dealing with customers or management, most frequently mentioned by survey respondents are customer awareness/acceptance, getting corporate understanding/acceptance, proving value/ROI and needing more dietitians to execute wellness strategies.

As outlined above, retailers continue to make progress in advancing dietitian programs, and as consumers continue to seek out more information about what and how they’re eating, RDs should prove to be a valuable asset to retailers seeking to secure shopper loyalty and present a point of differentiation in an increasingly competitive retail marketplace.

Additional findings included:

  • 36 percent of survey respondents say their RD program has been in place for three years or less. These respondents are most likely to say that store involvement and more dietitians are needed to be more effective.
  • 32 percent of respondents say that their program has been in place for four or more years. These respondents are most likely to say that their priorities have changed in terms of focus on programs with broader reach, more community involvement and more store-level involvement.

Research Conclusions

The RD’s role, or potential role, is quite broad, including working on employee health benefits, marketing and merchandising, community relations, and all aspects of customer health-and-wellness relationships. In larger chains, role specialization and decentralization of the position tends to narrow the scope of the dietitian’s role to areas where a dietitian’s input could be quite useful, for example, involvement with promotions and advertising, working with community partners, or contributing to the design of in-store nutrition efforts.

Many feel that the role isn’t well understood by either customers or the company. They report that goals are set for them, but they often don’t know by whom. At the store level, RDs sometimes feel that customers and managers aren’t aware of their potential service. The source of this lack of understanding may be found in the very breadth of a role that moves rapidly between tasks and assignments at both the corporate and store levels.

Newer RD programs can best grow by focusing on store-level activities and employing the dietitians necessary to fully execute these programs. These newer programs can also evolve by focusing on programs with broader reach — for example, general consumer education as opposed to one-to-one counseling.

To have their role better defined and better appreciated, RDs need to play a more proactive role in goal setting, performance evaluation, and communications both at the corporate and store levels. Importantly, RDs will often need to explain their role, its usefulness and how it can be aligned with other departments’ and overall corporate objectives.

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