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Getting closer to their hearts

Grocers are finding new ways to connect the dots between food, health and shoppers

Ever wonder if your store’s health and wellness programs are actually helping customers live better? They might, even more than you realize. Case in point: Calgary Co-op. For three years now this 23-store chain in Alberta has run a pro- gram called the Whole Health Challenge. A co-production of the retailer’s pharmacy and grocery departments, the multi- week program includes a series of free seminars and events in which customers can learn how to eat better while getting checked for diabetes and heart disease, too. While customers in the program undoubtedly learn some- thing about the importance of exercise and eating veggies, one male patron recently saw it as a lifesaver–literally. In a thank-you letter to the Co-op, he wrote how he’d wandered into one of the stores during the Whole Health Challenge and gotten his heart checked. The test showed he had high blood pressure and a moderate risk for coronary artery disease. Upon hearing that news, the man went straight to his doctor for more tests and he ended up having surgery for a blocked artery. That little anecdote definitely bolsters the view that grocery stores can do a lot on the health front for their customers. At Calgary Co-op, the Whole Health Challenge was devised as a way to do that. The idea for the program came initially from its pharmacy group, says Cindy Drummond, the retailer’s communications manager. “They wanted to do more than just dispense medication to treat conditions people already have. They suggested that we focus more on preventative health.” Now, after just completing the third annual Whole Health Challenge, Drummond says, “We understand there is a natural fit between pharmacy and grocery. We can make a huge difference in people’s lives.” Calgary Co-op is not the only grocer making the connection. Across Canada and beyond, supermarket operators are realizing there is a much wider role for them to play in helping shoppers live healthier lives and deal with food-related ailments such as heart disease, obesity, food allergies and diabetes. “Most consumers already visit a supermarket each week or even more often. So why not reach out with a health message at a place where people already are?” says Rohit Bhargava, a marketing expert and vice-president of global strategy and planning at the advertising agency Ogilvy in New York. Bhargava predicts that in the near future supermarkets will become what he calls health-care hubs. “There is a real opportunity to change behaviours and I think health-care providers and associations see the possibilities,” he says, of what grocery stores might offer people in the area of health. How supermarkets might evolve into Bhargava’s vision remains to be seen. There is no obvious blueprint to follow yet, no clear supermarket doing it exactly right. Instead many grocers across North America are trying out ideas and finding their niches in health. Noting Newfoundland and Labrador’s high obesity rate among children, a few years ago that province’s Colemans Food Centres introduced Kids Eat Healthy, a program with an in-store promotional component in which school children are given tours of the store to learn about eating smart. Colemans has topped that up with contributions to buy school playground and gym equipment. Likewise, Calgary Co-op’s Whole Health Challenge is designed to be fun as well as educational. Customers are able to sign up for 10-week mini-challenges with winners receiving unlimited boot-camp training for two for a year at a local wellness centre. Several grocers are linking health with the obvious part of their store–the food–through programs that encourage more scratch cooking at home. Earlier this year, HEB, a Texas-based supermarket chain, introduced the “Ready, Set, Cook!” challenge in which customers could win free groceries for a year simply by cooking at home one additional night a week for eight weeks. To help out, HEB dietitians created several recipes for participants to try. A similar program, called the Sobeys 21 Days to Healthy Eating Challenge, took place in Alberta, last September, with provincial government input. Families were encouraged to eat at least one nutritional meal every day for three weeks. To make sure health and wellness is considered at all points in their operations, some grocers are putting top executives in charge. Some of them have new titles previously unheard of in the retail food business. Last fall, Safeway in California hired a chief medical officer, or CMO. Texas-based United Supermarkets also hired its first-ever health and wellness director, in November. The fact that grocers are making health a priority at the highest levels of their organizations suggests that they too are thinking about their stores as future “health hubs.” One retailer certainly steaming ahead on that goal is Loblaw. “By the year 2020, supermarkets will become the health-care centre for Canadians,” says its senior vice-president of health and wellness, Michael Lovsin. With health-care costs spiralling upward, Lovsin sees “lots of opportunities” for Canada’s largest grocer to reach its stated goal of becoming the No. 1 nutrition and health destination in the country. Loblaw already has many of the parts in place needed to do that: 500 in-store pharmacies; 340 natural value departments; 200 community rooms and cooking schools that teach healthy eating; 100 in-store medical clinics; 100 optical departments; and numerous affiliations with GoodLife Fitness. Then there’s PC Blue Menu, the retailer’s line of healthier foods, launched in 2005. Last year, Lovsin was given the job of formalizing Loblaw’s health and wellness program and integrating the company’s existing health offerings. Under his leadership and as part of a larger strategy that includes putting registered dietitians in all Loblaw stores in Ontario, the company launched a pilot project of the Guiding Stars nutrition scoring sys- tem last fall. Loblaw has an exclusive licence for the system, developed by the American supermarket chain Hannaford Brothers. It measures the positive and negative nutritional aspects of each food product and gives ratings from zero (bad) to three (very good) to help people make healthier choices while shopping. Loblaw expects to roll out Guiding Stars nationwide this fall. More is happening behind the scenes, says Lovsin. For example, working with Unilever’s Becel for Heart Health, Loblaw stores across Canada provide a free Healthy Heart Check through its pharmacies. Loblaw also works with the Canadian Diabetes Association to offer a year-long national in-store program called “Get checked now” to encourage people to be tested for diabetes. “We believe that health and wellness programs drive loyalty and differentiate us in the market; it gives people a good reason to shop at our stores.” Lovsin adds that “feedback from customers has been fantastic and lots of bloggers, especially mothers, have given us rave reviews.” In fact, grocers say they often see customers as the ones driving in-store health initiatives. This can make it easier to pick which programs to pursue. “Consumers want to take charge of their own health and they want to be involved in the conversation about what is offered in the stores. We get a lot of comments through social media and e-mail and we respond to that,” says Betty Kellsey, PR manager at Canada Safeway, headquartered in Calgary. Making the link between in-store pharmacies and the opportunity to promote healthier lifestyles led Safeway to offer more information on heart disease, celiac disease, diabetes, healthy food choices and weight management. An online “wellness centre” offers tips on topics such as how to cut down on fat and healthy eating for seniors, while Safeway’s Canadian pharmacies distribute a free magazine called Family Health. “We also offer Heart Smart tours in the stores, stock Weight Watcher products and have whole sections for diabetics,” Kellsey says. In British Columbia, Overwaitea Food Group says many of its health and wellness programs were developed in reaction to customer demand. One of Overwaitea’s more popular programs is its nutrition tours, led by registered dietitians. Adults pay $14.99 or redeem store points to sign up; kids and school groups get free tours. Consumers can also pose questions online through the retailer’s “ask our nutritionists” program and get guidance on how to follow special diets related to gluten-free, diabetes and heart health, says Carmen Churcott, Overwaitea’s vice-president. Such online initiatives can help grocers understand what matters to customers on the health front. When Hy-Vee supermarkets in the U.S. created online health and wellness forums on topics such as organic food, heart health and exercise last summer, it soon discovered the hottest topic of all was vegetarian diets. As a result, the 235-store Midwestern chain planned to add more vegetarian cooking demos to its stores, a spokesperson told Supermarket News last August. Grocers are also targeting employees with healthy messaging. At Whole Foods Market, for instance, employees who participated in the Health Starts Here program, originally launched for consumers in 2010, lost weight and showed improvements in cholesterol and blood-pressure levels after just six months. Loblaw, too, offers health and wellness programs in parallel for customers and colleagues, says Lovsin. “We hold 60-day challenges and measure our return on investment by tracking employee engagement, activity and weight loss.” Wendy Benson, a registered dietitian and registered nutrition consultant in Calgary, agrees the benefits to pro- viding healthy eating information at the supermarket are huge. As well as having dietitians on hand to explain how to read ingredient lists on packages and how to follow Canada’s Food Guide, Benson would like to see more grocers promote store nutrition tours to high schoolers and teach basic cooking skills so people are able to prepare fish, legumes and other healthier foods. But a fine line exists between teaching and shoving health down people’s throats. For all their interest in eating better, consumers, it appears, do not want stores to edit out the sugary foods nutritionists might abhor but shoppers view as well-deserved treats. Nothing made that as clear as when earlier this year Tesco, Great Britain’s largest grocer, came under fire for chopping the prices of Twix, Snickers, Bounty and other candy bars in half. Critics charged that Tesco was contributing to obesity and diabetes. But consumers disagreed, arguing grocery stores should not be turned into health-food stores. Limiting selection is akin to food censorship, many argued in comments posted on newspaper websites in response to articles on Tesco’s price cuts. Several people also wrote that eating right is a matter of personal responsibility, not the grocery store’s. Of course, cheaper prices on healthier fare is another matter altogether. In January, HEB launched a program called “Healthy at HEB” that included price deals for shoppers who bundle healthy ingredients together. A recent offer, for instance, gave four dollars off the total purchase price of certain ingredients to make lasagna (extra-lean ground beef, pasta sauce, lasagna noodles and fat-free mozzarella cheese); the recipe could be found on HEB’s website. Walmart in the U.S. last year, meanwhile, announced price cuts on produce. Overall, grocery stores are heading in the right direction on health and nutrition, believes Stephanie Langdon, a registered dietitian in Saskatoon. “I definitely see the value of helping people eat better, especially as everyone is so busy and often unsure of what to eat.” While she likes the idea of dietitian-led store tours, Langdon would like to see a stronger link between healthy eating programs and in-store pharmacies. “If someone goes to get their blood pressure checked, they could benefit from a referral to a dietitian...but they often don’t understand how to access a dietitian. Having one in a grocery store is a great idea.” As pharmacists, dietitians and managers in produce and across the store work closer together, more in-store programs on health will be created and the prediction of supermarkets as health hubs will become reality. Back in Alberta, Calgary Co-op’s Drummond sums it up best: “Even in a low-margin business such as grocery, we can tell people to shop the outside of the store first, to load up on colourful fruit and vegetables and to try something new,” she says. “It is our job and responsibility as a retailer to pro- mote the health of our community.”

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