US: The next big marketing weapon for supermarkets – the dietitian

Heather Illg is one of the newest power players in food retailing. But she doesn’t oversee ad budgets or balance sheets. She’s more interested in calories, fat and fibre.

Illg is a registered dietitian at a Hy-Vee, a grocery chain in Iowa, one of hundreds of nutrition experts who are emerging as a major force at supermarket titans such as Wegmans and Giant Eagle.

Once confined to hospitals and offices, dietitians are a marketing weapon for the chains bringing them aboard to aid shoppers seeking the best foods to drop weight, battle diseases or avoid allergic reactions.

The trend is another sign that consumers are demanding more from their food providers as the nation’s health-care system puts a premium on preventive care. And it also represents an increasingly powerful constituency for the nation’s food marketers to win over.

Grocery chains have long had dietitians at the corporate level, but a growing number are now positioned in specific stores. One-third of stores have a registered dietitian at retail, according to a recent survey by the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers; 86% employ them at the corporate level.

While their mission is to assist shoppers, dietitians are a major brand asset for stores, with many appearing on local radio and TV shows. The publicity serves as a boost for supermarkets as they look to stay relevant while more competition comes from drugstores like Walgreens and CVS, which have increased their food offerings.

“Supermarkets have lost 15% share over the past 10 years, so they need to stave off and differentiate their offerings from drug, dollar [and] warehouse [stores],” says Phil Lempert, a food-industry analyst who runs

Today there are 500 to 600 retail dietitians. Lempert predicts that number will at least double within two years. The demand is so strong that he recently launched the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance to educate dietitians on supermarket operations.

The trend to put dietitians in-store began in the heartland, where Iowa-based Hy-Vee began experimenting with the idea several years ago. Today the chain has about 190 dietitians on staff, offering services at all 233 stores it operates in eight Midwestern states.

In rural towns, the Hy-Vee might be the only place to find a dietitian, while in urban areas consumers like the convenience, said company spokeswoman Ruth Comer. Just head to the store and the dietitian can “walk you over to the product, show you where it is, what it looks like, what you look for on the label,” she says.

A lot of the services are free, like the basic store tours, menu suggestions and shopping lists recently offered by dietitians at a store in a Des Moines suburb where  Illg works. The same store charges for personal consultations, starting at $119 for two visits for new clients, according to its website. Some of the demand comes from shoppers suffering everything from heart disease to digestive conditions….

… How important is health marketing to supermarkets? Steven Burd, CEO of Safeway, puts it this way: “Today we’re a supermarket company … selling wellness services and wellness products. I think in 10 years’ time we’ll be thought of more of a wellness company selling food.”

That strategy is driving initiatives like “Simple Nutrition,” a shelf-tagging program developed by the chain’s corporate dietitians and labeling experts. It tags products that meet dietary and nutritional needs and there are 22 potential “benefit messages” ranging from “gluten free” to “good source of folate.”

The chain will soon roll out a web-based tool that will allow shoppers to tailor shopping lists to meet nutrition goals, Mike Minasi, Safeway’s president-marketing, said. The program, called “My Simple Nutrition,” will rely on purchase history from loyalty cards to suggest more-healthful alternatives. For instance, a consumer who has bought canned soup might want to be concerned about sodium. In that case, the tool would return low-sodium alternatives….. Read the full article