SEATTLE — Ranging from bans on foods with high fructose corn syrup to earning LEED Gold Certification, PCC Natural Markets is known for a lot of industry firsts.
Added to the list last week was its status as the first retailer to become “gluten-free endorsed” by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, a national non-profit that provides support to people with gluten intolerance. Gluten is a protein commonly found in rye, wheat and barley.
To qualify, PCC worked with GIG for 18 months on product identification; staff training and education; and development of consumer resources and information.
“Offering shoppers and staff resources and information about gluten intolerance and gluten-free products wasn't something new for PCC, but the depth, breadth and the accessibility of information has increased significantly,” spokeswoman Diana Crane told SN.
In the past, gluten-free products were identified by manufacturer statements on packaging. Although it was helpful, it wasn't enough, according to one customer.
“You need yellow or some other bright color to make the ‘gluten-free’ print stand out! This would make a lot of us happy,” shopper Corrine Beuchet told PCC.
Today, orange gluten-free shelf tags identify 2,000 gluten-free food and body care products sold in the store. These items comprise 11% of PCC's total grocery sales, according to Crane.
Items that are naturally gluten-free, like bottled water and most dairy products, do not receive a tag, even if they've been labeled by the manufacturer as such. Just because a product has been purposely produced without gluten doesn't guarantee that it will qualify for a tag either. One cannot be issued unless the item was produced in a gluten-free facility. “This provided an additional level of scrutiny for products assumed to be or labeled ‘gluten-free,’” noted Crane.
PCC's merchandisers began reviewing products and information provided by vendors to determine which items would get a tag. Gluten-free product status is logged in an inventory management software program updated nightly so that discontinued items can be removed and new ones added. Since March 2009, there has been a 15% increase in gluten-free items, a 20% increase in gluten-free brands and a 24% increase in gluten-free sales at PCC, according to Crane.
Store associates are better equipped to accommodate demand since training about gluten-free foods and gluten intolerance is required of all new and existing employees.
“Staff training was a major component of qualifying for the GIG's gluten-free endorsement,” Jill Edwards, employment and training coordinator for PCC, told SN.
The six-month process began with an 8-hour training session conducted by Cynthia Kupper, executive director of GIG. It was attended by two staff members from each of PCC's nine stores, as well as a team of merchandising and human resource personnel. It was condensed to a 1-hour session for store directors and department coordinators, who qualified to wear an “I'm a gluten-free specialist” badge upon completion. A 20-minute session was attended by all other staff, who carry gluten-free question and answer cards with them at all times. A comprehensive reference guide is also available to staff and customers.
“All training materials were reviewed by GIG, as will be a training video in the works that will become a part of ongoing staff trainings and new staff orientations,” Edwards said.
Employee knowledge was tested with questions like: “What would you say to a customer who asks if a spelt salad is good for a gluten-free diet?” (The answer is no.)
Store associates have become invaluable resources to gluten-intolerant shoppers in search of items with tastes and textures resembling foods they once enjoyed.
“One customer actually cried when she was made aware of Udi's gluten-free bread made with tapioca; she had a sandwich for the first time in 10 years,” Edwards said.
Recently diagnosed customers are particularly appreciative of resources that simplify gluten-free shopping and cooking, she added.
PCC offers “Gluten-free Walk, Talk and Taste” store tours and cooking classes like “Gluten-free Mexican Fiesta” for kids and “Gluten-free Muffins, Scones and Quickbreads.”
Shoppers can also search an online gluten-free database and build a shopping list or search for gluten-free recipes at pccnaturalmarkets.com.