WASHINGTON -- Any retailer can stock health and diet products -- the more successful operators set themselves apart by offering up-to-date information and educational resources for their customers.
The formats for delivering that data may vary, from library-like seating areas with printed literature and dedicated staffers, to simpler stand-up computer stations. However, all in-store information services share one common element: consumer trust.
Michael Peet, senior vice president, sales and marketing/regulatory affairs, for Healthnotes, a Portland, Ore.-based provider of in-store and online health information, said his company is working with increasingly larger retailers, such as Costco, Albertsons, Ahold USA and Kroger, as consumers seek to strengthen their ties between wellness and the foods they eat. As the prime outlet for food and beverage sales, supermarkets are uniquely positioned to provide whole-health information.
Ideally, a three-tier program works best, and incorporates in-store services, a Web site component and pro-active consumer outreach. Peet suggested creating in-house "experts" to assist customers with specific health problems. If the retailer cannot afford to employ a full-time registered dietitian, then some associates may volunteer to act as a contact -- especially if they themselves suffer from a health condition or know someone who does and are therefore familiar with it.
Some key areas of focus are weight control, menopause, sports and fitness, and diabetes, he noted. Resources can include printed information like books and pamphlets, as well as interactive kiosks.
"Make a printer available, because people love to take information home," Peet said. It also frees up the area for other customers.
In this area, it's critical to keep the information current. Shelves should be reviewed on a regular basis and computer data updated on schedule.
"You're effectively providing a second opinion even before they get their first from the doctor," Peet observed. "People are looking to avoid going to the doctor if possible, by trying an over-the-counter remedy first."
Retailers wary of investing extensively in such a program can bolster its chances of success by using signs throughout the store. On-shelf placement can be especially effective near applicable food products. For example, a sign asking, "What's the difference between ibuprofen and aspirin?" and including a pitch for the health kiosk might compel someone with a heart condition to seek out the answer in the store using the resources provided by the retailer.
To that end, the Web site should be an extension of the store, not an afterthought, Peet said. One of the benefits is that usage can be reviewed in the back office so retailers can determine what areas of interest are getting the most inquiries and tailor materials accordingly. Peet suggested:
Highlight topics of interest to baby boomers.
Publicize in-store seminar schedule and resources.
Highlight recent coverage in newspapers and magazines.
Include information on your special-order process if you have one.
Offer easy ways for customer feedback and suggestions.
"Make sure you don't offer any e-commerce services unless you are able to fulfill them," Peet said. "You also have to keep it up to date and current. People will lose interest quickly if you don't update it on a regular basis."
The Web site can often be the reason new customers venture to the brick-and-mortar store in the first place, since their first impression is formed by the layout and content of the retailer's home page.
"It's important to remember that 78% of Internet users search the Web for health information," Peet said, citing industry statistics.
The final component -- public relations -- should position the store or chain as a resource for health solutions, he said. The best outlet for accomplishing this is establishing a strong relationship with consumer or health reporters in local and regional media, including radio, television and newspapers. One simple step is to notify them of any upcoming consumer seminars being held in-store, and inviting the reporter to attend. Likewise, leverage your experiences working with consumers on specific health topics with the media, he said.