Wellness programs touch multiple departments at supercenter pioneer Meijer, winner of the 2007 Whole Health Enterprise Award
Say the Word “Supercenter” and consumers think price, convenience and value. Say “Meijer,” and they think health.
Sound like a stretch? Not when consumers can visit a single store for a dedicated section of gluten-free products, convenient and healthful recipe ideas, free antibiotics and a yoga mat — and still walk out with change in their pockets.
“Healthy living doesn't have to be more expensive living,” said Doug Meijer, co-chairman of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based chain.
His assessment goes to the heart of Meijer's success in health and wellness, and explains why the 181-store chain does so well in a category where the supercenter might feel sidelined. The format's emphasis on margin and cost often precludes it from participating in any meaningful way in a business dominated by premium products and high prices.
Yet Meijer has surpassed both its immediate competitor — Wal-Mart — and even conventional supermarkets with a comprehensive approach to health and wellness that still is affordable to consumers who need help and support.
“As [wellness] spreads to the broader population, particularly here in the Upper Midwest, where there have been additional economic challenges, it requires us to make it work, to stay intensely focused on keeping our offerings in the health area as price-sensitive as possible,” said Mark Murray, president of Meijer.
This unfailing support of customers, as well as its sensible approach to wellness and the ability to pull it all off in a harsh economic environment, make Meijer uniquely qualified to earn the third annual SN Whole Health Enterprise Award.
A SUPER SUPERCENTER
Meijer is a $15 billion company currently operating stores in five Midwest states: Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Each store faces severe bread-and-butter issues that impact families, retirees and everyone in between. The decline of traditional manufacturing jobs such as those in the automobile industry means that here, budgets are often dictated by necessity rather than desire.
“Meijer has always been about keeping prices low and having offerings available for everyone,” Murray told WH.
The chain has long enjoyed a reputation as a low-price leader, even before Wal-Mart began encroaching on its territory. Founded in 1934, Meijer helped make the supercenter format work by focusing on price and value. Today this approach is also applied to the way in which health and wellness is marketed to shoppers.
“Meijer has the products that make their lives healthier, but above and beyond that is to make their lives easier,” said Shari Steinbach, one of three Healthy Living advisors in the company. “Anything we do is focused on convenience first. A good value is what Meijer's all about.”
Steinbach, a registered dietitian, joined Meijer in 2004, just as the retailer was launching its wellness platform. As the first wellness advisor in the company, Steinbach understood her role would be to reach out to the consumer and to be the human face of the company's wellness program, called Healthy Living.
“Meijer was already getting into the Healthy Living offerings as far as food items, but they were looking for the education piece, to have experts on staff,” she recalled.
In the three short years that followed, Steinbach would be joined by Janine Faber and Cheryl Bell to round out the Healthy Living office. Each one oversees market areas where Meijer has stores, but each also has specific jobs. Faber writes the Ask the Dietitian column for both the retailer's website and Healthy Living magazine, while Bell uses her experience as a trained chef to work up recipes that are also featured online and in print.
All three are extremely busy. According to Steinbach, it's common for Faber to receive an average of 60 emails every week, asking all sorts of questions. Faber answers each one herself, and two are chosen each week to appear on the website.
Everything the trio does is designed to make healthful living convenient. Helping consumers can be as simple as offering budget-sensitive ideas for time-saving meals.
“For the most part, they want things that are quick and easy,” said Steinbach. “They don't know how to cook much anymore, or both parents work and the kids cook. They're not looking for ultra-gourmet or ultra-in-depth.”
Here's one example of how Meijer earns credit from shoppers by making meals easier: The Healthy Living staff will find on-ad or seasonal items and use them in developing a week's worth of meals to post on the Quick & Healthy Menus page of the retailer's website. Here, shoppers find a list of what to buy, preparation directions for each dish and a nutritional breakdown for calories, carbs, fat and fiber.
“There's only a handful of recipes for the week. It's really quick and easy, a lot of the items are on sale, and people say it's a whole lot healthier than eating out,” said Steinbach, adding that many of the recipes come from manufacturers.
“There are more products out there now that have the health benefits or the profile that we want,” she said. ”What we're finding now are branded products that have a good nutritional profile, taste good and have a reasonable price.”
Each menu includes at least two servings of fruits or vegetables and emphasizes whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy. Ralph Fischer, group vice president of grocery, sees how having staff dietitians has validated Meijer's overall wellness programs.
“If we can build an awareness of how easy it can be to do things from a healthy standpoint, the way you want it, then we're off to a giant head start as best-of-class against our competitors,” he said.
BIG IDEAS, BOLD STEPS
One of Meijer's 7 Brand Promises is to “provide our customers with differentiated and compelling choices every day.” Translating that in 200,000 square feet of selling space takes a person to every part of the store, from produce to the garden center. But the food side gets the toughest workout in wellness.
Much of the current excitement focuses on private label. In 2007, Meijer introduced two store brands that reinforce the retailer's commitment to the category in a big way.
“How do we bring wholesomeness to the masses at an affordable price? That's what Meijer Organics is all about,” noted Fischer, a 16-year Meijer veteran who oversees the chain's grocery, pet, cleaning and dairy categories. “Anyone who wants to really go organic can do so and afford it.”
The Meijer Organics label, rolled out in January 2007, will soon encompass 200 items. All are integrated within aisles carrying their conventional equivalents. Certain products are highlighted by signs reading “Healthy Living,” while others sit aside regular options.
“They cover all the categories. We're really excited about them. The quality is great, and we're really hanging our hat on them,” said Fischer, who added that Meijer carefully evaluated its consumer base's desire for organics before moving into private labels for wellness.
“Up until the last 18 months or so, we were probably a little slow with own-brand, but no longer,” he said. “We're really being aggressive and innovative with it, and it's a major change for us.”
Meijer was so pleased with the reception for its organic store brand that it introduced a line of natural home care products this summer, covering cleansers, detergent and fabric softener. There are about 15 SKUs in the Naturals line right now.
For a supercenter like Meijer, private label in wellness makes sense. Not only does it give customers interested in healthful living an affordable way to participate in the movement, it also strengthens the retailer-shopper bond that Meijer needs in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This kind of insight has moved the company to offer wellness products in several guises, Fischer noted.
“We started not only with natural and organic items, but foods that addressed certain dietary needs or restrictions,” he said. “The goal wasn't for us to say one was better than the other, but to create sections within aisles.”
Besides Meijer Organics and Naturals, shoppers will find Bountiful Mornings, a line of five cereals in the breakfast aisle that are full of fruit and whole grains. In beverage, they'll find MVP, an isotonic beverage developed by a non-competing retailer and shared with Meijer for its own label.
Most recently, Meijer started stocking dedicated gluten-free sections in just about every store. Products were brought in, set in mock displays and evaluated by local celiac disease support groups before the items were added. The sections typically measure 8 feet and are found in the baking or pasta aisles. Initiatives like this came as suggestions from category managers and other support personnel, Fischer said.
“Each category manager can really go in the direction they want. They know the rules and goals of the category, and we give them the autonomy to take that category places,” he said.
Produce is a prime example of this attitude at work on the perishables side. Mark Stevenson, director of produce merchandising with 25 years at Meijer, said stores carry at least 70 organic items on a daily basis, year-round.
“The key to that is that supplies have increased, and quality has increased, to the point now where customers aren't looking at something that has no eye appeal,” he said.
As organic options grow, so too does the opportunity to integrate the category. Right now Stevenson is testing full integration at one store, with a second test unit almost ready to go. The goal is to keep fresh fruits and vegetables foremost in the customers' minds as they walk through the door.
“What we've done is keep produce at the front of our stores. When you walk in, it's there, and we try to make sure we're delivering the freshest produce at a value to our customers,” he said.
Produce is trucked to stores seven days a week, and most of it is purchased direct from growers, which knocks down the price a bit and gets it onto shelves quicker. Locally grown items have become a favorite of customers, especially during the summer months, when Michigan crops and those in surrounding states are at their peak.
“We're one of the largest users of locally grown produce in the Midwest,” said Stevenson. “We consider it anything that's grown in the five-state area where we do business.”
Shoppers walking into stores often are greeted by large signs promoting that state's farmers, with a nearby poster listing the actual farms and their locations.
“Our stores have fresh product. You look at the size of our product, you look at the quality of our product, and you look at the retail price of our product, and you see our product is a value to our customers,” Stevenson added. “And that is a true differentiator.”
CONNECTING IT ALL
Food takes up roughly one-third of a typical Meijer store, which can top out at 200,000 square feet. The other two-thirds is devoted to general merchandise. But even here Meijer is promoting wellness in ways perfectly suited to a supercenter format.
“I look at Healthy Living as our umbrella over many different areas, and I divide it into food, fitness and pharmacy, because we sell products that support each of those categories,” said Steinbach, who, as a Healthy Living advisor, is responsible for creating in-store events. Her challenge is to conduct outreach in ways that include all three areas of the store whenever possible.
In fact, the size and scope of Meijer stores is one reason shoppers won't find a dietitian kiosk or a wellness boutique inside. It would just be too small.
One initiative really proved to be a success because — like the Meijer stores — the event was large and touched various departments. Known internally as In-Store Healthy Living Shopping Events, the focused, two-hour experience enlists the help of media partners, for promotion, and vendor partners, who help set up and man more than a dozen action stations. In produce, a chef might be grilling vegetables; in pharmacy there are health screenings; while a member of a local cycling team is providing biking tips in the sporting goods section.
“We're highlighting foods that are in our grocery aisles, whether it's 3-A-Day in dairy, or whole grains,” said Steinbach. “In our walking department, they're handing out walking logs. It depends where we are and who we enlist as partners.”
Another in-store series held this summer further tested the supercenter's capacity. By Steinbach's count, there were 7,000 people at the largest of the six events, which tied together produce and kids.
“Those are the events where we can go for two hours, and have such an impact on our consumers,” she said.
But Meijer doesn't need an event to tie wellness together throughout the store. Every day, associates make the effort to cross-pollinate various departments. So if a customer is visiting the in-store pharmacy to pick up diabetes medication, she'll find healthful eating tips and food suggestions from the Healthy Living advisors inserted into the bag. Other promotions might direct customers to the sportswear or shoe departments.
“Many of the disease management states that we work with — diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity — there's a fitness component, so we can say to them, ‘Have you tried using a pedometer? Do you have good walking shoes or activewear?’” Steinbach said. “We have yoga mats and yoga DVDs.”
The pharmacies themselves offer numerous services, often in conjunction with a larger event coordinated by the Healthy Living staff. The department offers services for disease management and medication therapy management, among others. There are also screenings for a variety of conditions.
Each might come with a small fee. For example, a full lipid profile is $30, and includes a post-test consultation with a Meijer pharmacist.
In the end, Meijer's wellness umbrella goes to the heart of any retailer's responsibility to its customers. It's a role that the company takes very seriously, and will continue to, according to Murray, the president.
“We keep coming back to the customer — the family — and what we can do to help that family,” he said. “We have our challenges on margin and our ability to stay profitable. But how can we help that family? That's what we keep coming back to.”
Meijer's Wild Side
A unique partnership with the Nature Conservancy has Meijer doing its share to protect the region's land and waters from invasive plant species, such as baby's breath and purple loosestrife, non-native greens that are taking over the Great Lakes' sensitive dunes and wetlands elsewhere.
As one of the largest destinations for gardeners and home landscapers, Meijer took the important step of removing plants considered invasive, and stocking displays with species capable of halting the invasion or even undoing some of the damage. Working with the Nature Conservancy, the retailer tags plants with a “Recommended Non-Invasive” logo.
“We've gotten a good response from our customers. It's not directly related to organic or fitness, but we do believe that this issue of health and wellness gets to the question of how we live,” said Mark Murray, Meijer's president. “In that way, having a nice glass of wine, or having fun gardening or entertaining at the grill, are all part of living a healthy lifestyle.”
Antibiotics for All
Meijer made history last October when it announced a new prescription drug program that allowed any customer, regardless of insurance or co-pay, to receive free antibiotics at any of the chain's 181 stores. It was a decision that received praise from many quarters, including the medical community.
“We're very proud of our free antibiotic program,” Mark Murray, Meijer's president, told WH. “We think it's a way for us to bond closer with our customer base, and we're willing to take that short-term loss for the right long-term community partnership.”
The no-strings-attached program was the first of its kind by a major retailer, and clearly demonstrates one way Meijer is staying relevant in an increasingly competitive Midwest market — one that faces higher-than-average economic pressures due to declines in the region's traditional manufacturing jobs.
“Rising health care costs are having a dramatic impact across the country, and especially here in the Midwest,” Murray said when the program was announced.
While 94% of Meijer customers were shown to have insurance coverage, many still struggled with drug-related co-pays. The seven antibiotics covered under the program are the ones most commonly prescribed for treating childhood conditions.