Healthy Profits


Retail dietitians help progressive grocers leverage wellness trends to ring up sales.

That the role of dietitians at grocery retail remains loosely defined has not slowed the movement’s importance to the industry, according to exclusive research from Progressive Grocer. A further look into the future indicates that promoting and partnering with consumers on health is the wave of the future.

PG fielded a survey in July-August 2013 among c-level, operations, pharmacy and health-and-wellness professionals at grocery retailers across the United States. The survey included both telephone and electronic interviews, and results are based on the participation of 123 respondents.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents to PG’s survey indicate they have a registered dietitian (RD) on staff. Mid-tier retailers, those with between 11 and 200 outlets, are most likely to have RDs on staff, indicating that smaller players can still use RDs as a differentiator among competitors.

On its website, for example, Big Y, a Springfield, Mass.-based retailer with 61 stores, promotes health and wellness as much as it promotes weekly specials.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents from chains with more than 200 stores don’t have RDs at their companies. Research doesn’t reveal the degree to which nonlicensed professionals are used by the grocery industry, but other titles used by companies include “nutrition educator” and “wellness expert.” The actual role of RDs is still a point of confusion in the industry. Respondents to PG’s survey indicate RDs work in a few departments, meaning that even retailers themselves aren’t sure where the RD role resides. More than 40 percent of respondents say the role of RD falls under the marketing and advertising arm of the retail banner.

Some RDs working through marketing and advertising promote health by soliciting the support of CPG vendors of healthful products. One RD shared with PG that her job is working with vendors to get financial support to promote healthy products, while she’d prefer to be more focused on shoppers. “The ideal role for the store dietitian is working with customers,” she said. “The most important tool retailers have for promoting health is to work with people, helping them plan their meals for a specific diet. Consumers generally love their retailer, and working with a dietitian makes them feel confident the store is really looking out for them.”

Grocery retailers typically connect with consumers through myriad channels, including circulars, newsletters, social media, in-store signage and community partnerships. Retailers with dietitians make even more pronounced use of these venues than do stores that don’t employ RDs. In the instance of social media, for example, nearly 85 percent of respondents from companies with an RD use social media to promote health and nutrition, compared with 44.3 percent of respondents from companies that don’t have an RD.

One RD pointed to the success she’s had with sampling of healthful products in-store. “Customers are delighted to learn that the person demoing products is a registered dietitian. Through sampling, they learn there’s no difference in taste between a full-sugar juice drink and one with half the sugar. From that small win, they’ll take the opportunity and ask for other suggestions. Combining sampling with nutritional expertise is powerful,” she said.

Barbara Ruhs, an RD with Bashas’, a Chandler, Ariz.-based chain of more than 130 stores under such banners as Bashas’, AJ’s Fine Foods and Food City, has found great success through community events. The retailer hosts a spring walk in partnership with the American Heart Association, and a fall Walk to Cure Diabetes. “We brand our booth with our ‘Eat Smart’ program,” says Ruhs. “We give away tons of samples and coupons for healthier products. These are people who are receptive in the first place; it’s a great way to connect with consumers. It’s also a great way to get vendors involved and employees walking as well.”

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, which operates more than 200 stores in the Northeast, held RD-sponsored back-to-school events where consumers learned healthy eating habits for the family, and enjoyed samples and giveaways.

In-store consumer efforts include store tours to teach about healthful offerings and how to read product labels or learn about nutrition shelf-tag programs. Many dietitians provide fee-based services to closely monitor and support consumers on special diets. Some even work in partnership with medical professionals to track vitals like weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.

Says Bashas’ Ruhs: “Visionary retailers are lining up behind these health initiatives, because they know that people want to eat healthier. … Proximity and good value will always be drivers, but throw health into the mix, and you’ll really get customers in the door.”

West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, with more than 230 stores in the Midwest, offers such services (some of which are fee-based) as health and nutrition information and menus to help consumers meet personal health-and-wellness goals; health screenings such as cholesterol, blood sugar, body fat and body mass index; complementary shopping tours that can be focused on specific health concerns; medical nutrition therapy (with physician referral) consisting of tailored programs; a 10-week Begin Healthy Lifestyle and Weight Loss Program led by a Hy-Vee dietitian; community presentations on a variety of health-and-wellness topics for businesses or organizations; cooking classes; wellness workshops; and kids’ events.

RDs are in a unique position to partner with other departments within the store. While not tabulated, RDs frequently work with in-store pharmacists on in-store nutrition programs, and pharmacists regularly direct customers for individual meetings with RDs.

More than half of RDs work with the category management/buying team to choose products for promotion. Just less than 27 percent of RDs indicate that they participate in planogram sets. But nearly a quarter of respondents indicate that the category management/buying team doesn’t use the expertise of the store’s RD.

According to one survey respondent: “When the head of the organization is invested in health, everyone will follow suit. Without that support, they’re telling the company, either consciously or unconsciously, that health is not the highest priority.”

But stores are very much vested in tracking the value that RDs bring to their stores. Tracking initiatives include positive customer interaction and sales of healthful products. Stores also pay attention to social media metrics and participation in RD-promoted events.

Consumers are increasingly taking control of their health, and retailers, through their wellness offerings and as food purveyors, have a huge stake in the game. More retailers are employing registered dietitians, in part because RDs are a dynamic way for retailers to promote their health-and-wellness messages. RDs can also provide the invaluable personal connection that consumers seek with retailers. Notes Bashas’ Ruhs: “Healthier is coming. Who better to promote these products than the dietitian?”

Proximity and good value will always be drivers, but throw health into the mix, and you’ll really get customers in the door.”
—Barbara Ruhs, Bashas’

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