'EASE'-DROPPING: SIMPLE WAYS TO TRACK CUSTOMER DIET TRENDS

Atkins. South Beach. Green tea. Cabbage soup? Those were just some of the most popular Web site searches for diets this spring, according to Web site portal www.lycos.com. While the Atkins and South Beach diets loom large in the contemporary diet psyche, the green tea and cabbage soup diets lurk in the lesser-known, cult classic arsenals of the get-skinny-quick dieter.With consumers turning to everything

Atkins. South Beach. Green tea. Cabbage soup? Those were just some of the most popular Web site searches for diets this spring, according to Web site portal www.lycos.com. While the Atkins and South Beach diets loom large in the contemporary diet psyche, the green tea and cabbage soup diets lurk in the lesser-known, cult classic arsenals of the get-skinny-quick dieter.

With consumers turning to everything from beef to cabbage, from Oprah's Boot Camp to Perricone's Promise, from church basement support groups to online diets, it's tough work for retailers to keep up with rapidly evolving diet, health and wellness trends. How can they cope?

"The best way to stay in touch is to be out in the stores," said Paul Howland, the Natural Choice buyer for Bashas', the 144-store grocery chain based in Chandler, Ariz. "I talk to my people and talk to customers."

Howland takes his work with all-natural foods one step further by also living the life. "I have been eating natural foods for 25 years," he said. "I surround myself with people who eat it, my professional contacts and friends, and that's how you learn about stuff coming up."

Howland pointed to his recent installation of wheat-free and gluten-free products as an example of how he stayed on top of a trend and served his customers. Recently, he noticed a small retail "blip on the radar" for wheat-free products, so he decided to put in a section of products to cater to people with celiac disease. A local support group for celiac disease sufferers discovered the section, and Howland said they now take the items back to their support group and talk about them.

"When you discover that you are sensitive to wheat products, it is a life-changing thing," said Howland. "They form support groups to help find food they can eat."

At Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, Akron, Ohio, managers look to the food preparation and catering staff for ideas on trends. "We have a cooking school and a cooking school director," said Barbara Schenk, vice president of operations for the two-store operation. "Our cooking school director is way on top of trends. We have internal managers' meetings where information like this gets shared."

Mustard Seed also conducts tours of the store and uses consumer feedback to help better serve the community. Like Bashas', Mustard Seed offers an "extremely wide selection of gluten-free products" for those who suffer from celiac disease.

"That's a niche for us. We have people in both of our stores who do free tours for people with celiac disease," said Schenk. "We hold gluten-free food tastings. Our customers ask us for information, and we research it and get back to them."

Responding to consumer demand, as in the case of the wheat-free products, is one way to serve a niche customer base and build store loyalty. Yet, the majority of consumers shopping for health foods remain perplexed about the basics of a nutritionally sound diet.

Susan Borra, an independent registered dietitian, said supermarkets can help busy and diet-overwhelmed shoppers by pre-packaging meals in portion sizes. She suggested packaging labels that say, "If you are watching your weight, try this portion size," instead of labels that say, "This product has only 500 calories." Borra said consumers do not get "excited" about calorie messages, but respond well to messages about portion size.

"Consumers are still telling us they find all this information confusing," she said. "They are not sure where to turn for answers. If retailers came out with nutrition and health programs and resources, then customers would react positively."

Consumers are eager for retailers to make sense of all of the nutrition information out there. According to the 2004 Food Marketing Institute report, "Shopping for Health," 55% of those surveyed said they are trying "a lot" to eat more healthfully, and 46% want their store to offer a greater quantity of nutritious prepared foods. Some 77% want to prevent health problems later in life, and 36% would like their store to provide more information on weight loss.

Ultimately, retailers have to "be aware, to be watching and reading, and looking around," according to Dianne Keeler Bruce, president of DKB Consulting, New York. Retailers "need to be cognizant of what's going on and what consumers are seeing or reading. It used to be that trends would come from restaurants, but they're happening elsewhere: health, diet, doctors, people like Oprah, and TV shows."

Bruce recommended retailers read the weekly food section of their local newspaper and consumer magazines, such as Gourmet and Saveur. Also, television shows on the Food Network are "key" to understanding what the consumers see and learn from the media. "Even on 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,' they have a food section," she noted. "The guy who handles it talks about how to make easy appetizers or easy meals. Those kinds of things affect the stores as well."

The new federal dietary guidelines are the "best" source for information on trends regarding health and wellness, according to Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. "The issue of health is not going away," he said. "It changes, but it doesn't go away."

Balzer added that one-third of all women and one-fifth of all men are on some kind of diet.

"As a retailer, you have to stay fluid and stay informed," he said.