A wealth of wellness awaits associates and customers at Hy-Vee, winner of the 2008 Whole Health Enterprise Award
JUST AFTER NEW YEAR'S DAY, some 4,000 people in the Midwest signed up for a weight-loss program. They were urged to team up with partners for support, exercise together and stick with it for 100 days, after which each person would receive a gift card with a dollar amount based on their weight reduction. The final tally was an impressive 32,000 pounds lost.
The narrative is revealing because each of the participants is an associate of Hy-Vee, a 224-store supermarket chain based in West Des Moines, Iowa. The event, called “Live Healthy Hy-Vee,” is just one of several company initiatives created as part of a giant wellness umbrella that stretches over everything the company touches.
“One of the reasons that we're able to attack a goal as lofty as changing the health of America is because we have some of the best people in the world working here,” said Ric Jurgens, Hy-Vee's chairman, chief executive officer and president.
Hy-Vee knows that promoting a healthy work environment has both immediate and long-term benefits. Taking care of its 52,000 employees in turn helps countless numbers of customers with an unprecedented level of personal service. Add innovative health benefits, more than 120 store dietitians and a signature, Olympic-qualifying sports event, and it's easy to see why Hy-Vee has earned the 2008 SN Whole Health Enterprise Award.
ALL ABOUT ASSOCIATES
Hy-Vee is in business to help customers, but its wellness strategy starts with employees. The philosophy is that healthy associates are far more effective than any sign, coupon or circular in helping consumers improve their shopping habits.
“Our whole culture is about health, and we want to be the place you shop for health,” said Sheila Laing, assistant vice president, employee benefits. “That culture is ingrained in our employees. They want to do everything they can to help the customer. They also want to do what they can to help themselves.”
The centerpiece of Hy-Vee's employee wellness plan is a revolutionary program called Healthy Lifestyles, introduced at the beginning of this year. Offered free, in addition to traditional health insurance, this value-added option takes a more holistic approach by emphasizing lifestyle management over simple benefits. Instead of waiting until they are ill to address health issues, participants in Healthy Lifestyles learn to become proactive.
“If your workforce is healthier, they're going to be more productive,” said Donna Tweedon, Hy-Vee's assistant vice president of communications. “But above and beyond the bottom line is to create a happy working environment. We all know that if people aren't happy in their work, they don't stay.”
The program is also good for the retailer. Employees who enroll in Healthy Lifestyles go through a multistep evaluation that includes meetings with a Hy-Vee pharmacist and, oftentimes, a dietitian. Utilizing this “in-house” expertise is one way the company reduces the cost of administering the program.
“Why pay somebody to do some of the things we're really good at, and that we can do for ourselves?” Laing asked. “When we were developing this program, we wanted to make use of the professionals we already have working for us at Hy-Vee.”
Pharmacists and dietitians are used in one-on-one screenings to determine an employee's biometric values. They might also be consulted during subsequent personal health assessments, or during the meeting between the associate and a health coach, at which time specific health issues uncovered during the assessment are discussed.
“Say you went through the health screening and assessment, and your cholesterol's high. We're going to get you into an intervention to help you manage and lower it,” Laing said, adding that she learned a few things herself during her assessment.
“I would have thought I was a pretty decent judge of what to buy. But I took it upon myself to call one of the dietitians and tour a store with her as a customer,” she recalled. “And I learned stuff. I changed the margarine we use in our house. I changed the bread and the cereal, too.”
Though it's voluntary, there is an incentive to join Healthy Lifestyles. Employees who go through the screening and the assessment get a discount on their premiums. Nevertheless, officials questioned the wisdom of using inside experts. There were concerns that employees might object to discussing private health matters with Hy-Vee personnel.
“I have no push-back. Employees love this,” said Laing, noting that 6,000 people enrolled in Healthy Lifestyles during the first quarter of 2008. “The pharmacists and dietitians are licensed professionals. They're not like the assistant manager in the store or the person writing your evaluation.”
The positive response speaks to Hy-Vee's ability as a company to engender trust. It's a quality that manifests itself in different ways. At the store level, managers exercise a degree of autonomy rarely encountered in today's world of centralized operations. Jurgens credits them with developing the chain's network of dietitians.
“As we found how effective dietitians were in helping stores, managers started to add them on their own,” he said. “The fascinating thing about this is that we didn't tell store directors they needed dietitians. And today it's a part of the fabric of our company.”
Local management can also adapt Healthy Lifestyles benefits to fit the workforce. Some store directors pay for fitness club memberships; others host walking clubs at their stores. Behind it all is an integrated effort that constantly reinforces the health message.
“I think we've done a much better job in the last year or two by putting up posters in the break room, sending out health-related mailers with pedometers and getting a magazine to every employee,” said Tweedon, referring lastly to Hy!, a quarterly work-life-balance publication that debuted in February 2008 as an internal communications tool for employees.
“The key is to empower associates to take control of their own health, so they can go out and help shoppers do the same thing,” Tweedon said.
CARING FOR CUSTOMERS
Hy-Vee starts with employees, but the ultimate beneficiaries are the customers. Everyone who walks into a Hy-Vee store today is witnessing a retailer changing to meet the country's new health priorities: The company's new slogan is “Making lives easier, healthier and happier.” Pharmacies have been redesigned to make them more accessible and less “clinical” — yet private; in one of the first units to be renovated, a self-contained waterfall partition separates pharmacy customers from regular shoppers. Some are adjacent to health clinics, though all offer consultation services and $4 generic prescriptions.
There's more: The chain's Health Market departments are expanding to include more items as demand for these products increases. Some stores are preparing to test a new nutrition rating system that will eventually be rolled out to all units next year. New and remodeled stores will soon get chefs, another area of growth that adds to Hy-Vee's customer relations reputation. And numerous projects are under way examining ways the company can become more energy efficient and ecologically friendly.
“We believe if you can make a difference, you should make a difference,” Jurgens said of all these initiatives. “Food is such an important factor in determining our customers' health. We can make a difference, so we have to.”
With so much going on, it's easy to see where a customer might become confused. So, Hy-Vee has adopted a strategy best described as “educated guidance.” The retailer has a structure in place, supported by in-store expertise, to help consumers — if they want it.
“I don't necessarily see our job as being the bible of fitness,” Jurgens said. “I think our job is to provide as much information as we can, and as consumers want, to help them make the decisions.”
NuVal is good example of this attitude at work. Created by researchers at Yale University and marketed by Topco Associates, NuVal uses a complicated formula to add up the nutritional value of any food or beverage (see “In the Know,” SN Whole Health, Spring 2008). A final score of between 1 and 100 will be posted on shelves. Hy-Vee will do a soft launch of the program in three categories — produce, service meat and frozen vegetables — before expanding to other areas of the store.
“We're not telling anyone what to buy,” added Jurgens. “We're only trying to make it easier to sift through the information that's on the packages.”
Hy-Vee's custom-published magazine is one way the retailer provides that all-important guidance and information. Seasons, going into its third year, targets women with topics touching on food, family and health. As a communications tool, the magazine helps promote continuity and long-term thinking in marketing efforts.
“A lot of what we do in marketing is not just about today, selling a can of beans,” said Jon Wendel, vice president of marketing for the chain. “It's about 10 years down the road.”
As wellness influences more and more of the shopping experience, Hy-Vee is bolstering its dietitian services. There are 124 already in stores throughout the seven states that make up the company's market area, and that number is likely to increase in the coming years.
Customers have reacted favorably to the dietitians, telling the retailer they're less intimidating than those found in a hospital or community health setting. Wendel said the dietitians help differentiate Hy-Vee.
“We have become a cool place for a dietitian to work,” he said. “In the process, we're getting a base of educated people.”
Being a Hy-Vee staff dietitian means preparing for any question or any situation. There are heartbreaking moments, such as the time a newly diagnosed cancer patient begs for help in choosing the right foods; there are success stories, including one dietitian who invites children to tour the organic garden she grows at her home and learn about organic agriculture.
Even the typical customer inquiry can veer to the extreme.
“A woman called one day and asked which was healthier: canned crab or canned tuna?” recalled Jenny Norgaard, a dietitian for a store in West Des Moines. (For the curious, a label review showed tuna has 10 fewer calories per serving, but is slightly higher in sodium and cholesterol.)
“In the smaller stores in the small towns, the dietitian is the face of Hy-Vee,” observed Donna Dolan, one of the retailer's three corporate nutrition experts. “And they are everywhere — in the store, in the schools and in the neighborhoods.”
The medical community knows about them as well, and it's common for doctors or health clinicians to refer their patients to Hy-Vee experts for dietary guidance. The close interaction with consumers gives the dietitians a unique opportunity to spot new trends or gauge demand for new products — so store managers are constantly seeking them out for input on what to stock and what to rotate out.
MAKING IT WORK
Hy-Vee operates in America's heartland, populated with small cities, civic-minded towns and remote rural communities. This disparity requires flexibility, and the retailer has stores of all sizes throughout seven states (including a new smaller-footprint store called Heartland Pantry). But regardless of location or size, every store has access to wellness products and services.
“We're firm believers that the store has to be as good as the story,” said Wendel, the chief marketer. “And the better our stores get, the better the story we have to tell.”
In a sense, the stores themselves communicate with management. Among the surprises in the wellness category are Hy-Vees in Moline, Ill., or Topeka, Kan. The communities there are described as die-hard blue collar, yet the dietitians in those units are among the busiest and the Health Market departments regularly show the biggest sales growth.
“Blue collar or white — health is on everyone's mind,” Wendel said. “Regardless of your income level, you want to take care of yourself and your family.”
Stores are the center of many health programs that Hy-Vee either sponsors or participates in. For example, shoppers can sign up for Begin, a 10-week lifestyle management program, led by dietitians, that includes store tours, fitness sessions and cooking classes. Then, there's “Lighten Up America,” which is essentially the same weight-loss initiative as “Live Healthy Hy-Vee,” the employee plan. Customers come to stores to weigh in, get advice and pick up program information — all written by Hy-Vee dietitians.
“So it's something that kind of has come full circle, because customers can come in and learn about healthy living, and then our employees have their own program internally,” noted Laing, the employee benefits administrator.
All Hy-Vee units have some representation in health and wellness. Most stores have Health Market departments, pharmacies and a dietitian. Dolan, one of the corporate nutritionists, notes that the combined effect of these whole health elements reminds customers to enjoy life more.
“For us, health just isn't about eating low-fat, low-sodium foods,” she said. “Our goal is to just get people eating meals. It's easy to overlook that simply getting people back to the dinner table is a healthy thing to do.”
Those stores with community rooms become a focal point for healthful living. Many of the activities that take place in these kitchen/classrooms involve children. There might be a birthday party one weekend, and a merit badge class the next.
“We do a lot of kids' cooking classes in the stores,” said Laura Kostner, another of Hy-Vee's corporate dietitians. “I never would have guessed those would be so popular. At first, I thought it was one dietitian in one store, in one town. But the response has been phenomenal.”
The activities taking place in the community rooms have proven to be so popular that the retailer is launching a new program that will greatly expand the number of chefs affiliated with stores. In conjunction with dietitians, the chefs will take the action right out onto the sales floor, demonstrating healthful cooking techniques and meal ideas in a demo kiosk adjacent to the produce section.
“People make their purchase — and health — decisions in the aisles, so what better place to help them make decisions that will result in a healthier life?” Kostner asked.
A major goal behind the chef program is to get away from passive sampling events, where a third-party demo person stands behind a table blindly giving out bite-size pieces of a product, with little or no story behind it. Wendel refers to these types as “Mabel at the Table.”
“You walk into stores and you see 70-year-old ladies handing out samples of frozen pizza, with no knowledge of the product or retailer,” he said. “It's just a mass feed. The new world is the dietitian and chef standing there serving something healthy, and it becomes a food experience.”
Hy-Vee seems to understand that the “experience” is integral — even necessary — to health and wellness. People who are willing to change have likely learned that they have a life-changing medical condition, or are about to become parents, or have just discovered something to be passionate about. In each case, Hy-Vee presents itself as a retailer ready and willing to help — in person, through its stores and with its many services. Jurgens believes consumers will find themselves in good hands.
“It's evolved over time to the point where, today, we have a goal that is very simple in words but wide in scope: To be the healthiest company in America.”
Hy-Vee At A Glance
Headquarters: West Des Moines, Iowa
Year founded: 1930
2007 sales: $5.6 billion
Number of stores: 224 in 7 states
Number of employees: 52,000
Number of dietitians: 124
Name of wellness department: Health Market
With more than 220 stores in seven states, and 52,000 employees, Hy-Vee sees plenty of opportunities to become more ecologically friendly. The chain's first LEED-certified store is scheduled to open next year in Madison, Wis., followed by a second unit, in Des Moines, Iowa. In existing stores, the retailer is experimenting with a variety of design elements it hasn't used in the past.
Reducing the environmental impact of the company's operations is a request that comes directly from consumers, according to Ric Jurgens, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Hy-Vee.
“Today, environmental issues are about me and my family, and what I can do to make a difference,” he said. “It's become a personal issue for our customers, and we want to help them just like any other health matter.”
The question on every retailer's mind — not just Hy-Vee's — is how to make green initiatives work for the company's bottom line. Jurgens believes that sustainability can be profitable, particularly since technology has caught up with demand.
“The question everyone's trying to answer as we tackle these environmental issues is: Is it cost-effective?” he asked. “Our belief is that if we can find ways to control energy use, we're going to be more efficient and save money.”
The process requires capital, maintenance plans and oftentimes the addition of expert staffers, but they are expenditures Hy-Vee is prepared to make, according to Jurgens.
“When you commit, it's a message to your management team, your employees and your customers that you're serious about health and the environment,” he said. “And so we're doing it.”
Midwest Gold Rush
As part of their wellness strategy, Hy-Vee officials wanted an iconic public event that could demonstrate just how serious the chain was about promoting healthy lifestyles. They found it in one of the most difficult physical contests ever invented by mankind: the triathlon.
“We put our name with things that represent health,” said Jon Wendel, Hy-Vee's vice president of marketing.
Created just last year, the ITU Hy-Vee World Cup Triathlon is already the sport's premier event in the United States. This past June, it served as the final U.S. qualifier for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It created a tremendous amount of excitement throughout Hy-Vee's marketing area.
“We have communities within ‘Hy-Vee Land‘ that have started their own triathlons for kids,” said Donna Dolan, a corporate dietitian. “Store directors in one area will get together and say, ‘Let's put one on here.‘ It was amazing to see.”
Hy-Vee was involved in the Olympics in bigger ways. It helped sponsor Shawn Johnson, a West Des Moines native who took home a gold and three silver medals in gymnastics from Beijing.
“She was a perfect person for us to partner up with, and it's an effort to send a message to our customer,” said Ric Jurgens, president, chief executive officer and chairman of Hy-Vee. The retailer also helped welcome her home with a gala celebration right after the Olympics ended.
Jurgens himself tries to set an example. An avid cyclist, he joined his son-in-law and cousin in the amateur/age division of this year's triathlon. The team, with Jurgens riding the bike, finished sixth in a field of 50 teams.