For example, Pennsylvania-based Weis Markets offers free "mystery tours" for kids in second through fourth grades, says Karen Buch, the chain's director of lifestyle initiatives. Kids get equipped with a plastic neon fedora, clue pad, and magnifying glass and venture through the store to determine which foods will restore energy to the listless Weis Markets mascot. The larger mission: to educate kids about nutrition in the aim to end childhood obesity.
The tours are just one part of the company's Healthy Living initiative, which features a Healthy Bites magazine and a website with details on special diets, instructional video recipes, a blog on healthy living, and a contact form to ask questions to one of the company's three staff dietitians. "With this economy, people's food dollars only stretch so far ... they see food as something within their area of control," Buch says. As the trend continues to gain momentum, supermarket dietitians are coming together to navigate this niche and learn, for example, about making the business case for healthy foods.
Earlier this year a new professional group, the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, was formed to help support the more than 400 retail registered dietitians in this effort.
"The name of the game for all of us is to try to be doing things that help healthier foods sell better and then, at the end of the day, these companies say, 'Oh my gosh. I'm making more money on my healthier foods. I better do more of those,'" says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways, a nonprofit that draws on culinary traditions to promote healthy eating. Oldways recently held its third annual conference for supermarket dietitians.
Food and Culinary Professionals, a division of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also has a group dedicated to the work of supermarket dietitians. "Their vision is to optimize the nations health through food and nutrition, and what better place than through the supermarket?" says Buch, the incoming chair of that group.
"There are no concrete numbers at this time regarding the influx of dietitians in the supermarket space, because those programs can look any number of different ways," says Lauren Hefner, communications director for the National Grocers Association. "For some larger operations, it can mean having a dietitian in each store available to help consumers with their dietary choices, shopping habits, healthier decision making, etc. For smaller companies and single-store operators, it could just mean having printed pamphlets and resources available to consumers, or having a contract dietitian available on a retainer basis for guidance."
Hefner says that the trend is driven by consumers, who want "to feel like their store understands their individual needs." For its part, stores benefit through shopper loyalty and positive feedback, for example. "But really it's about providing a service to their communities and customers to set themselves apart and address consumer needs and wants."
One of the leading supermarkets in this realm is Hy-Vee, an Iowa-based chain that houses a dietitian in nearly every one of its stores. The company's robust efforts in nutrition include special healthy check-out lanes, where trail mix and fruit replace the usual spots for candy; end-of-the-aisle displays on the featured healthy food of the month; and signage featuring the local dietitian's tips to eat well.
"We do know there is a return on investment, we just don't know the effect overall," says Hy-Vee corporate dietitian Rochelle Gilman. However, Hy-Vee has seen an uptick in sales around certain healthy promotions, and "it sure does help with customer loyalty," she says.