Retailers and industry experts say there is much to be gained by creating an in-store shopping experience, one that gives consumers options, an enhanced environment and a professional staff focused on individual health needs.
That's the point Harvey Hartman, president of Bellevue, Wash.-based The Hartman Group, made when he spoke last month about the importance of providing a wellness shopping experience. During the Washington D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute's Supermarket Pharmacy Conference, Hartman and Ed Slaughter, director or market research, Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pa., jointly discussed the evolving wellness consumer.
Almost a quarter of all consumers subscribe to the wellness lifestyle, said Hartman, and 75% of the American population is "really trying to change" how they live. Although the characteristics of these shoppers are not well defined, they are pursuing "a lifestyle shift," he added.
In targeting this growing group of consumers, supermarkets, traditionally viewed as a utility for commodity products, should balance the utility aspect with the retail shopping experience. In other words, be a utility by providing commodities but also create an area where consumers want to spend time, Hartman explained.
"You hear that 'consumers don't have time'," said Hartman. "That's baloney. They have time, there's just nothing in the store that they want to stay around for. Basically, they are more open for more experience, information, knowledge and lifestyle linkage activities."
According to Hartman, it takes the average person shopping a mainstream grocery store 21 minutes from the time they leave their car to the time they return. In contrast, those who shop Whole Foods Markets, Austin, Texas spend 39 minutes in the store. "That's a bigger basket, a bigger [consumer] experience and a greater connection they (Whole Foods) have with their consumer," Hartman said.
Not suggesting that traditional grocery stores convert to a Whole Foods format, Hartman did emphasize that "utility is good" but needs to be complemented. "You look at the natural products arena and you see where these things are really going -- toward the emotion and shopping experience," he said.
Of those who use vitamins, minerals, herbs and supplements, he said, "45% can't name a brand. But they can tell you where they bought it. More than ever before, the retailer has a significant opportunity to create themselves as a brand," he said. "(Whole health shoppers) would only shop at one store if they could get the right kinds of products and the right kind of experience," he noted.
Rodale's Slaughter also touched on the need for an in-store wellness experience. "Where are they going to get it in your store? Is there someone there or a place there for the consumer to go? There needs to be."
Most industry watchers agree that whole health will provide the edge for those supermarkets willing to maintain a commitment to it. That means providing the experience for an ever-growing segment of consumers looking for ways to individualize their pursuit of healthy living.
"We will gain a lot of patient confidence and I think that we'll make a statement that we really are concerned about the consumer's well-being by going in the direction of whole health," said Caynor Smith, pharmacy supervisor, K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va.
"A healthy shopper is a happy shopper," noted Mike Halliwell, pharmacy coordinator, Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan., which has a store-within-a-store section called Health and Naturals. "Hopefully, we'll gain a loyal shopper."
Halliwell acknowledged that the pharmacist is one person who can help foster that loyalty. He also mentioned registered dieticians as other professionals that do a lot to promote whole health throughout the store. "We have two registered dieticians who are helping to coordinate that [wellness] concept," he said.
A big challenge has been tying the various departments together so they are all aimed at achieving a common goal. For example, the produce department buying into the [wellness] program and involving the pharmacy, natural foods, seafood and meat departments, said Halliwell.
"We're trying to accomplish it as a total store experience," he added. "Every department is involved in the Health and Naturals concept. We're trying to create an experience for our customers when they come in. We're spreading the word that we're not just there to sell groceries; we offer a lot of other services in addition."
Some of the services provided by the retailer include hosting seminars led by registered dieticians, healthy recipe cooking demonstrations and health screenings.
Hartman said the human involvement -- pharmacists and registered dieticians -- is an integral part to the overall experience. "Consumers want human interaction," he said. "And they want the ability to make their own choices for their individual wellness regime and lifestyles."
Halliwell shares a similar viewpoint. "I don't think you can create a cookie-cutter program and expect that your customer will fit into what you think they want," he added.
The seminars that Balls Food Stores hold are a starting point for providing individual wellness counseling. Consumers can come to a seminar and get overall general information. "We then elicit them to come do one-on-one consultations with our registered dieticians and tailor a program specifically for them and what they are trying to accomplish," said Halliwell.
Ideally, a supermarket that offers options will have appeal to health-oriented shoppers, these executives said. Whole-health shoppers don't want to be treated like everyone else or told what to do, said Hartman. Instead, they want to be given choices and understand what options are out there and available to them, he added.
Listening to consumers is essential in creating an appealing in-store experience, noted the executives. "You have to actually listen to your customers, find out what it is that's important to them," said Halliwell.
Hartman agreed. "The ability to create a connection with that consumer is the ability to create long-term patronage. The future of wellness is driven by the most important ingredient that's out there today, the consumer," he stated. "The ability to understand and look at and listen to and talk to the consumer has tremendous advantage competitively both short and long term."