ST. LOUIS -- Nutrition has become a powerful marketing tool for Ukrop's Super Markets, the family-owned independent based in Richmond, Va.
While all shoppers may not want to buy sugar-free desserts or chicken salad made without mayonnaise, there is a small but significant number who come to the store just because these items are available. And there are many more who want the option of buying them.
That is according to Jeanine Sherry, president of New Wellness, a nutrition consulting firm, who also serves as corporate nutritionist for Ukrop's.
At the recent annual bakery-deli conference of the Retail Bakers of America held here, Sherry told attendees how she works with community groups, local hospitals, schools and customer feedback to develop nutritional products and education programs.
She said the need for nutrition programs in supermarkets will continue to grow as shoppers' hunger increases for healthy items. That hunger, she said, will be fed by the new nutrition labels that must be on most food items by this Sunday, May 8.
"Nutrition is not a fad. It's not like fashion that comes and goes. A lot of people are thinking that this health thing is really just a kick. People really aren't going to stick with it. They are going to go back to eating bacon and eggs and all those regular kinds of foods. That's not really the case," Sherry told the audience of bakery and deli executives. "Think about all we've learned about nutrition," she said. "Can you picture five or 10 years from now someone saying, 'Gosh, I really miss heart disease. I really wish cancer would come back.' That's just not going to happen. We know too much now about how what we eat affects our risk of different diseases. We're not going to revert to old habits." Today, while the changes in the diet of many Americans may not be major, small steps are being taken, Sherry pointed out. People are forgoing the special sauce on their Big Macs, eating half a pint of premium ice cream when they used to eat a pint, and drinking skim milk instead of whole. What this is, she said, is a marketing opportunity.
And what's working for Ukrop's is teaming up with community groups to distribute nutrition information, targeting segments of the population that are looking for particular nutrition data and products, and focusing on the development of good-tasting, healthy products, Sherry said.
The development of healthier versions of some of its top-selling products has resulted in significant additional sales for the 22-unit chain.
For instance, the retailer sells 2,200 pounds per week of its low-fat chicken salad without eating into sales of its best-selling traditional chicken salad.
"When we first set out to develop some healthier products, our owners said, 'don't mess with the chicken salad. It pays the rent,' " Sherry said.
Sherry said that at first, sales of the regular salad dipped, but then went right back up.
"We got people buying the new product who had never bought chicken salad before." Sherry said the retailer does a lot of sampling and cross merchandising when introducing the health-oriented products to get people to try them. "For instance, we sampled the light chicken salad in the produce department with fresh cut melon," she said.
Ukrop's doesn't separate the "healthy" items in its service case from the others, but it does put its "Appetite for Health" logo stickers on the product's price and ingredient cards.
In the bakery, the company developed a sugar-free chocolate banana cake, using NutraSweet as its sweetener. "We wanted to develop a no-sugar cake for people who can't have sugar," Sherry said.
She said it took a long time to develop a product that met the dietary requirements and still tasted good. And since NutraSweet loses its sweetness at high temperatures, the cakes have to be baked at a low temperature. Ukrop's had people in the community with diabetes sample the cake as it was developed. "At $3.99, we sell 80 to 90 units of them a week. I know that doesn't sound like a lot, but it's added sales. We've developed a niche for the product," she said. Sherry said Ukrop's has launched a complete program "designed to make shopping easier for our customers with diabetes." It includes a video called "Diet and Diabetes" that features Sherry and a diabetes specialist. Developed and produced by Ukrop's, the video shows how foods affect blood-sugar levels and how to use the diabetic exchange system.
Ukrop's developed the program in response to customer requests. "We had people asking for products they could eat and we did some research and found that 5% of Richmond residents suffer from diabetes," Sherry said.
Sherry said that Ukrop's has always been conscientious about providing information about ingredients and nutritional qualities of its deli and bakery products.
"We use signage and product sheets and brochures," she said, and added that Ukrop's has worked with the manufacturer of its scales to produce stickers with nutrition information for random weight items. Some of the materials Ukrop's makes available to its shoppers are developed in-house, but others are sourced from government agencies and health organizations. For example, in its in-store bakery, the retailer is using free posters depicting the new Food Guide Pyramid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The pyramid recommends Americans eat six to 11 servings of grain products daily -- a recommendation many in the bakery business see as an opportunity to sell more breads and rolls.
Sherry said the posters, which Ukrop's had mounted, are dangled from the ceiling above the self-service bagel bins, and information points out that one bagel represents three servings of grain products.
Outreach to schools and community groups has worked well for the company, Sherry said. Recently the chain ran a nutrition poster contest in which 86% of Richmond's third-graders participated.
"When you have 90,000 kids submitting posters, you get a lot of media attention," Sherry said, adding retailers should be sure they present credible information. "Make sure you don't say things that are inaccurate; use a nutrition consultant or a registered dietitian, and target customer needs."