Consumers Confused About Health and Wellness Issues

Wellness is a great idea. Everybody likes it, and the industry is learning how to market against it.

Trouble is, consumers are confused about what it means, especially at the retail level.

Not long ago, at the Health, Beauty, Wellness Marketing Conference of the Global Market Development Center, Colorado Springs, a panel made up of Palm Springs, Calif., consumers was asked what retailer they most identified with health and wellness. The answer given most frequently: Trader Joe's. The Vons division of Safeway was often cited as being antithetical to the concept by these consumers.

Both choices were puzzling. Trader Joe's carries a lot of natural and other good-for-you foods, but comprehensive wellness is by no means a focus. Meanwhile, Safeway has put a high-profile emphasis on the merchandising and sale of healthy products.

When pressed, a number of the panelists cited prices of health-oriented products at Vons, which seemed odd, although it can have an impact on well-being.

One takeaway from this exchange was that consumers — at least those on this panel — don't have a very good grasp of what the concept of wellness means.

So what is wellness? Does it come from eating natural and organic foods and supplements? From eating ordinary, but healthy foods? From seeing a doctor regularly and taking the medicines that are prescribed? From exercising regularly? From avoiding unhealthy choices of all kinds? Or from having a healthy checking account?

When you think about it, the answer would have to be all of the above, but consumers aren't getting that message. Instead they get pieces of it, depending on who's selling what, the image of the retailer, or the specialty of the particular expert they are paying attention to.

For example, natural food experts push their interests to the exclusion of others, while physicians tend to rely just on medicines. Try to find a traditional M.D. who will recommend a supplement. Often, even physical fitness gets lost in the shuffle.

There's an opportunity here for supermarkets. Most are ideally positioned selling all the essentials consumers would need for a healthy lifestyle. Many have pharmacists, some have nutritionists, and a few have in-store nurse clinics. Nearly all are de facto community centers, where everyone comes, with the potential for cross-marketing arrangements with other area businesses, such as fitness centers and medical professionals.

A good example of a small step by a retailer toward connecting with customers' health and wellness needs is at Target, where receipts identify and total items that might qualify for health spending accounts. Even if the shopper doesn't have such an account, the retailer has made a statement: We care about your health and wellness, as well as your financial well-being.

Consumers will respond to a retailer that provides them with good information, and will reward them with the best kind of loyalty, the return trip. However, as confused as the Palm Springs consumers might have been about the wellness concept, they were very clear about one point: Prices must be competitive. Retailers ignore that at their peril.