PALM DESERT, CALIF. — It's up to retailers to educate their employees, and through them, their customers about wellness, said food and drug chain executives speaking during a “Wellness Awareness” session here last week. Store design also is an important component, they said.
A centerpiece of the Health Beauty Wellness Marketing Conference held here by the Global Market Development Center, Colorado Springs, better known as GMDC, the executive session followed one where a panel of otherwise apparently well-informed consumers revealed deep confusion about the concept of wellness and what it means at retail.
“It's a cultural challenge with our team members in the stores, and not just educationally, but trying to live a different lifestyle to help educate our employees, who then will become advocates for our customers,” said Dan Funk, corporate vice president, general merchandise and health and beauty care, Super-valu, Eden Prairie, Minn.
“There is a part that we can control from an educational standpoint in allowing our employees to make that first connection with the end consumer in the store,” he said.
The company has found an “incubator approach” useful in introducing and informing consumers about new product trends, Funk said. That is, a segregated section such as those used by many retailers for natural and organic products.
“That helps to foster those niches and trends in a manageable way within the confinement of the boxes we have today. At the same time, we have to be nimble enough to move those products out as they become mainstream,” Funk said.
In many product trends, “we're slow to get in and we're slow to get out, and we need to flip-flop that.” As an example, Funk pointed to low-carb foods that spiked in sales a few years ago, then declined and have recently seen a resurgence. “The product selection hasn't moved back as quickly as the consumer demand,” he said.
“It's part of a comprehensive educational process with the consumers, and also making a connection with their lifestyle, and letting them know why our stores are important to shop,” he said.
“First you have to educate yourselves, and then educate the people who are involved in your organizations about the health and wellness categories,” said Steve Davis, vice president, sales, merchandising and operations, Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy, Boulder, Colo. Pharmaca is a new-concept specialty chain incorporating pharmacy, selected food offerings and complementary medical services. Until recently, Davis was a top executive with Wild Oats Markets, also in Boulder.
Such education leads to “understanding the products better, understanding the science behind the products and, once you get that involved in wellness, it begins to snowball,” he said.
Store employees need to be knowledgeable about ingredients, and chains must be careful what they carry. “Retailers have to be the trusted editor when it comes to the products that they carry on the shelf,” he said.
“It's the retailer's responsibility to create a protocol of standards around the products that they carry. If they have a real strong protocol, it is going to force the hand of the manufacturers as it relates to ingredients that shouldn't be in products,” Davis said.
Harris-Teeter, Matthews, N.C., is investigating natural and organic products, but is being careful about what it brings in, said Rory Mecham, vice president, nonfoods. Part of the problem is the lack of a definition for ‘natural’ products. “I just want to know that the product we are putting out there is natural for the customer who is looking for it, and is not misleading. There needs to be some kind of a [natural] standard like there is for organics,” he said.
Educating and serving consumers means “being the gatekeeper; making sure those products are natural and organic,” said Nat Love, vice president, drug store, Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Most customers are making decisions at the shelf, and that's where they need help, he said. “In the average vitamin section in the average store there are thousands of bottles, and they all look alike. How can I make it easy for the consumer right there to get that message? Once that consumer enjoys the benefit of that item, they are going to take it for the rest of their life,” Love said.
“I think it comes down to simple messages, clear labeling,” he said.
Many of the panelists said in-store dietitians and nutritionists are on their wishlists.
“We have three dietitians now and that is not enough, but you have to start somewhere,” Love said. “Having about 45,000 square feet of food in addition to the pharmacy makes it a natural for diabetic and gluten-free tours. If parents with a child who can no longer eat glutens comes in, and you have someone to spend time with them, they will probably become a life-long customer,” he said.
Harris-Teeter has just reached the point where the chain has enough pharmacies so it can advertise them, Mecham noted. Diet and nutrition staff is a next step, one the company plans to take soon. “It's something that we are going to try in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, it will prove to be a worthy program and we will roll it out further,” he said.
“It's about education, it's about events and it's about the store experience,” Davis said. “The store experience equals dwell time, and dwell time equals sales and profits. You've got to get the customers in the stores. You've got to get them to understand the products, their own health and well-being, and understand where they want to go.”
Store layout also plays into customer awareness and satisfaction of a retailer as a health and wellness destination, Funk said. “Is it an Rx visit to try to pick up a few other health-related products, or is it a quick food visit in which most customers aren't going to go up and down all the aisles?” The key is designing the store to effectively meet these “quick-trip” needs, making sure complementary products are accessible around the pharmacy area, if that's where the customer is headed, or departments like produce and deli, he said.
“Health and wellness is a journey,” said Joe Mueller, vice president, health and wellness, Kellogg's, Battle Creek, Mich., repeating a refrain heard throughout the conference. “It is taking that first step. Everybody assumes that you have to be skinny to have health and wellness. Well, you have to start somewhere and you have to keep moving in that direction,” he said.
“It's got to be collaboration between everyone in the supply chain on food and health and wellness related products, and help the consumer understand holistic health,” said Skip Aldridge, executive vice president, chief customer officer, Pharmavite, Mission Hills, Calif. “Everyone wants one pill to make everything right, that's just not the way it is. It's a journey.”