It's a tad ironic that a company named after a bird of prey should gain such a reputation for nurturing the health and wellness of its employees and customers. But that's just what Giant Eagle has become known for as the independent regional retailer celebrates its 75th birthday. It's a Pittsburgh institution with a sweeping presence of more than 200 stores throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia

It's a tad ironic that a company named after a bird of prey should gain such a reputation for nurturing the health and wellness of its employees and customers. But that's just what Giant Eagle has become known for as the independent regional retailer celebrates its 75th birthday. It's a Pittsburgh institution with a sweeping presence of more than 200 stores throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Giant Eagle's attitude is especially apparent at store level. At the chain's prototype unit in Seven Fields, north of Pittsburgh, something uncommon is always catching the eye: Near an entrance, shoppers browse a display of local produce; a woman reads to a group of children at the store's "Eagle's Nest" child care facility; a counseling center adjacent to the store's pharmacy offers information about upcoming educational events. One gets the sense that this is a company that has spent a long time listening to its customers.

This year, the retailer's extensive, ongoing efforts to educate its customers about eating healthier, its drive to make natural and organic foods more accessible to shoppers, and its quiet role of leadership in the energy conservation movement has earned Giant Eagle our second annual Whole Health Enterprise Award.

On Tour

Giant Eagle was a pioneer in the growing movement to educate shoppers through store tours, and one of the first to recognize the importance of beginning these educational efforts early, with programs designed for children.

Acting as the test market for the Chicago-based Field Trip Factory, Giant Eagle originated the "Be a Smart Shopper!" children's program, which has since been adopted by several other chains, including Fry's, Lowe's Foods, Copps, Pick 'n Save and Rainbow Foods.

Focusing on healthy living and nutrition, the tours invite school kids from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade on field trips through a Giant Eagle store, with a nutritionist as their guide. They're encouraged to sample healthy foods and beverages, and are given advice on meal planning through hands-on activities and discussions geared toward their age level.

"The earlier children are provided exposure to positive nutrition information, the more likely they are to be willing to try new foods and apply various nutrition guidelines, explained Judy Dodd, Giant Eagle's food and nutrition advisor.

"Children learn numerous things on these tours, including reinforcement of the foods in the major food groups, identification of fruits and vegetables, key nutrients in each food group and practice in label reading and simple meal planning," Dodd continued. "In addition to the healthy eating message, we stress the need for exercise and for safety with medications."

The invitation to use the store as a classroom is also extended to adult shoppers who have special dietary needs, or are looking simply to eat healthier. Through outreach to local hospitals, schools and nonprofits, Giant Eagle has established these tours as a valuable resource for local communities, helping the company's health and wellness partners supplement their own educational efforts.

"Store tours are an integral part of Giant Eagle's wellness programming," Dodd said. "The tours target groups with an interest in healthy eating as well as those with health-related needs including diabetes, weight control, allergies and heart conditions. All tours are offered free by request to groups of at least four and up to 15, generally through either our toll-free phone line, a referral by a community partner or through one of our pharmacists."

Dodd herself acts as something of a health and wellness ambassador for the chain, frequently speaking about nutrition on local television and radio programs, or traveling throughout the company's network to give informative presentations to store associates and customers.

The company complements all of these educational efforts with one of the most extensive, detailed websites in the supermarket industry, www.GiantEagle.com. The site not only features calendars for local events such as the food expos and charity fund-raisers that the company regularly sponsors, it also hosts a wealth of information about preparing and enjoying healthy foods, including recipes, tips on storing and preparing specific fruits and vegetables, a collection of health and wellness columns written by Dodd, and regular features on in-season produce.

Natural Progression

Giant Eagle has been quick to adapt to health and wellness trends on the shelf as well. For example, as natural and organic foods have become increasingly popular, the chain has responded by ramping up its selection of organic produce and rolling out Nature's Basket, a store-within-a-store concept and private-label brand.

David Atkins, director of Giant Eagle's Nature's Basket efforts, said that natural and organic products once appealed primarily to wealthier shoppers. Now, like many of his peers in the industry, he's seeing a broader group of customers becoming interested.

"The growth is attributable to the media coverage of natural and organic products which has increased the awareness of these brands and their benefits," Atkins said. "In addition, we believe the steps we have taken to merchandise and market the products have helped to drive trial and repeat purchases."

Those merchandising and marketing efforts are readily apparent at the new Seven Fields location. Designers and category managers there have developed a format that invites new shoppers to these categories with a sense of excitement, but without a hint of pretension.

Almost a third of the store's 86,000 square feet stand out thanks to the visual cues that have come to define natural foods retailing. Earth-toned flooring and signage, darkened ceilings and track lighting all establish a subdued backdrop from which colorful, vertical displays of gourmet cheese and organic produce spring to life.

Positioned between the produce, meat and prepared foods departments, a Nature's Basket section offers a broad selection of natural and organic grocery, dairy and HBC items.

What makes the store unique is the subtle, skillful way in which it satisfies a shopper's need for exploration and familiarity. For example, workers from nearby office complexes - who packed the store's seating area during lunch on a recent summer Thursday - can sample grab-and-go sushi, made to order sandwiches or gourmet pizza. Similarly, the "Kitchens at Giant Eagle" prepared foods department offers entrees ranging from adventurous coconut crusted shrimp and lemon pepper salmon to comfort food favorites, like turkey breast or Yankee pot roast. Upscale olive, antipasti and salad bars further expand a shopper's options for healthful, exciting sides.

In the full-service meat and seafood departments, shoppers can choose between conventionally raised items or a large selection of all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, chicken, pork, turkey and sausages, many of which are sold under the Nature's Basket label.

Atkins explained that the Nature's Basket brand - which also includes dozens of other items, ranging from salsa and baby food to pasta and free-range eggs - helps make the natural and organic category more accessible to newcomers.

"Our Nature's Basket brand has helped introduce consumers to natural and organic items," he explained. "This brand is priced closer to [conventional] brands, and as a result consumers are more willing to try the Nature's Basket brand. We advertise our brand and other natural and organic brands in our circular on a weekly basis and in email communications to our consumers. Also, we have stressed store demonstrations to emphasize not only the health benefits of natural and organic products but also the great taste that is associated with these products."

The remaining two-thirds of the Seven Fields prototype more closely resemble a conventional supermarket, but shoppers browsing those aisles are in for constant surprises - like the selection of organic and all-natural pet food and pet care products; aisle bump outs throughout the unit offering items such as gourmet olive oils and salad dressings; or its international aisle, where customers can explore exotic sauces, packaged entrees and other products from countries including Thailand, India and Poland.

The majority of Giant Eagle's stores take a similar approach to these categories: Nature's Basket offers a concentration of natural and organic products in a store-within-a-store department adjacent to produce, with other select natural, organic and gourmet items available throughout the store.

The formula has been a successful one for the chain, Atkins said, because produce helps drive most of the store's traffic through the area, potentially introducing new shoppers to products they might not encounter otherwise.

"This has been a terrific location for the department due to the traffic that produce generates," Atkins said. "We always evaluate ways to improve our service to our consumer and are exploring integrating the natural and organic sets. This exploration is driven by the fact that a larger percentage of our consumers are embracing natural and organic foods."

Overall, it's a store where you can find almost any natural, organic and gourmet food that you want, and still go buy products like conventional washing detergent, noted public relations representative Victor Kimmel during WH's tour of the location.

New Markets

Despite the company's attentiveness to its shoppers' needs, Giant Eagle has remained acutely aware of encroaching competition from high-end and specialty retailers. Trader Joe's will open its first Pittsburgh location this year, Whole Foods already has a store downtown, and the company already competes with these and other specialty food retailers in cities where it does not dominate the local market. After extensive remodeling and expansion of two Pittsburgh-area stores, Giant Eagle this year launched its new Market District format.

A nod to the success of similar forward-thinking retailers such as H.E.B. and Wegmans, the stores are a foodie's paradise, offering shoppers an abundant blend of health and wellness products, as well as indulgent foods.

The stores offer more than 4,000 natural, organic and gluten-free items, 100 varieties of organic produce, bulk foods and spices along with gourmet candy, specialty products and a vast selection of prepared foods, entree salads and gourmet deli items.

The stores' cheese caves feature more than 400 different domestic and imported varieties. More than 500 items are available at the stores' kosher departments, and shoppers can experience a hot new restaurant trend at the stores' Brazilian-style churrasco stations, which offer fire roasted meats and vegetables.

One might be hard pressed to describe imported brie or gourmet candy as "healthy," but Daniel Donovan, company spokesman, explained that by generating excitement about fresh, wholesome foods and giving customers new ideas through constant cooking demonstrations and scheduled celebrity chef appearances, the format educates as it entertains.

"The three major factors that make a concept such as Market District a healthy place to shop and eat are the number and variety of natural and organic items we offer and promote, the idea of offering the freshest high-quality prepared foods and the knowledge all of our employees have on the foods they work with," Donovan said.

The stores have, for example, worked to recruit students from local culinary schools and have hired experts such as certified cheese mongers.

"In addition, our extensive training programs for employees at our Market District locations make them ambassadors for every item being purchased," Donovan said.

The company has said that it views Market District as a specialized concept which may only achieve a density of three or four stores in the Pittsburgh area. What it will likely offer the chain, though, is an opportunity to differentiate itself in markets where there is little room for new conventional supermarkets.

Of course, when strolling past the custom teddy bear stuffing machine in the Seven Fields card and gift department, or glancing outside at the below-rock bottom fuelperks gas prices at the GetGo location in the parking lot, you get a sense that Giant Eagle really isn't all that conventional. It's a company that has made its space in Pittsburgh and beyond through constant experimentation, innovation and careful listening. With its many health and wellness initiatives, the company is answering a real need within the communities it serves, and adapting to the demands that it sees growing immediately over the horizon.

"Giant Eagle looks to be a contributing member of all residents in the communities it serves," Donovan explained. "While first and foremost our goal is to satisfy the needs of the local consumer, we also realize the advantage these types of services may provide us over other retailers."

Environmental Star

Health and wellness aren't the only areas where Giant Eagle has been recognized for excellence. The company received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Energy Star Sustained Excellence 2006" award in March, after being named the agency's Energy Star Partner of the year in both 2004 and 2005.

The accolades are well deserved. Although the company's efforts may not be readily apparent to its shoppers, Giant Eagle has quietly become a leader in the energy conservation movement, and an early adopter of many new technologies geared toward making large stores friendlier to local environments.

For example, in December 2004, a new location in Brunswick, Ohio, became the first supermarket ever awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Recycled materials were used throughout the store's construction, and to dispose of produce, the store uses an industrial pulper, saving an estimated 100,000 gallons of water per year.

Among many other innovations, the store's skylights are outfitted with sensors, which automatically adjust interior lighting based on how much sunlight is filtering into the store. Meanwhile, a special reflective roof helps cool the store during hot days, while a monitoring system - using real time weather data - checks to see if any systems inside or outside the store are using more energy than expected, based on outdoor heat and humidity.

"A great deal of time, talent and resources went into making our Brunswick concept a reality," Giant Eagle's director of conservation Jim Lampl said when the LEED certification was awarded. "We already are implementing many of these features into our new supermarkets for the benefit of our employees and customers."

Education Central

Pharmacies have long been a fixture of modern supermarkets, but by utilizing the other elements of its health and wellness infrastructure, Giant Eagle has innovated the role that these departments play in fulfilling their customer's needs. They aren't just places for prescriptions - they are, for many customers, a hub from which they learn about the many educational opportunities and nutrition programs offered by the company.

"The Giant Eagle Pharmacy is one of the main vehicles through which the company activates its health and wellness initiatives," explained spokesman Daniel Donovan. "Our pharmacists interact daily with those customers who consider their health with the utmost importance, making our pharmacists excellent ambassadors for the various initiatives we conduct."

Ongoing initiatives include a diabetes education program, a medication management program, flu shot clinics and wellness screenings, Donovan noted.

"Our pharmacists also take part in various community events such as Phone the Pharmacist, a telethon-like event aired locally on Pittsburgh and Cleveland television stations four times a year in which Giant Eagle pharmacists field various health-related questions, and national Poison Prevention Month, wherein Giant Eagle pharmacists work in cooperation with the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to provide education about the dangers of everyday poisons," he said.

The company also regularly sponsors special events, such as a recent series of enrollment efforts to educate local seniors about their options under the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program. From October 2005 through May this year, the company offered one-on-one counseling sessions through a program developed with My Medicare Matters, a nonprofit arm of the National Counsel on the Aging (see "'D' is for Decision" in SN Whole Health, Summer 2006).

Currently, a test rollout of in-store, nurse-staffed health clinics is also under way. As Donovan noted, these clinics are in keeping with Giant Eagle's history of developing stores that offer several services under one roof.