FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Retailers picking some of the low-hanging fruit of whole health often overlook books and magazines, which are among the richest groves of potential growth for their ability to stimulate added sales beyond their own -- and give stores credibility as wellness destinations.Overlooking that opportunity is a mistake, industry veterans contend."We're in a time when people want to take charge of their health

Retailers picking some of the low-hanging fruit of whole health often overlook books and magazines, which are among the richest groves of potential growth for their ability to stimulate added sales beyond their own -- and give stores credibility as wellness destinations.

Overlooking that opportunity is a mistake, industry veterans contend.

"We're in a time when people want to take charge of their health more than ever before, and be more proactive than reactive. Knowledge is power, and they're hungry to learn about health and wellness," said Gary Goodhall, assistant vice president of pharmacy and drug store operations at Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. "We've been giving this kind of information away. Now, we realize people will pay for it."

How much will they pay? Pilot stores at Hy-Vee and Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., have been selling fitness and wellness books, CDs and DVDs at the rate of $500 per foot and earning 35% gross margins over the past 12 months, according to Ray Stone, president of HealthSmartRx, Elmhurst, Ill., their provider.

"With the health care market fragmented, [the chief household shopper] is looking elsewhere. Pharmacy is where she is going," he said.

Display racks in Hy-Vee supermarkets hang between the pharmacy and Health Market sections for greater exposure. Half of the eight-foot run of books, from authorities like the Mayo Clinic, focus on disease management. The other half features titles on general health and wellness. The average price in this section is $15, with a range of $5 to $40, Stone said. Fitness CDs and DVDs cover yoga, pilates and more.

Distributors like HealthSmartRx often offer a line of brochures and touchscreen kiosks that give customers printouts on medical conditions and procedures, diets and weight management, sports nutrition and more. Additional machines can display blood pressure, pulse, weight, body mass index and blood oxygen levels for free, or take blood samples for a fee that includes screenings for a variety of health conditions.

"We see that by putting health books by pharmacy, [over-the-counter remedies] and healthy foods, we're increasing movement," added Goodhall. "We envision that books and magazines could be out in the food aisles instead of just the traditional department. We've talked about doing some of these things."

Moving to where the food is makes sense, according to Steve Etter, president and chief executive officer, Harrisburg News Co., Harrisburg, Pa. Harrisburg News Co. services Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., and Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa.

"If you limit display of health, wellness and fitness titles to family reading centers, you'll get the enthusiasts. The trick is to put these titles where they'll trigger a response among mainstream consumers and build impulse sales," he said. "The fitness-oriented person already knows he'll pick up the next issue of Men's Fitness when it's available. This is more about how spring has sprung, and a girl wants to fit into a bathing suit. She can see an issue of a magazine while walking the Relax-Renew-Revive aisle of Giant, and the cover has a person with perfect abs and a story on how to get them. That's how you get impulse sales."

He likes the connection he sees between the pages people browse and the products on sale in the supermarket. "They're like catalogues for what's on the shelves. Power bars, waters, skin care and beauty care are all great places to display magazines," he added.

At Giant, for instance, magazine sales "shot through the roof" after a six-store test of a plexiglass displayer showcasing eight health, wellness and fitness titles that "butts up against endcaps in cosmetics, hair and skin care, and is now expanding chainwide," said Etter. He had no measure of their impact on other product sales.

Whenever Weis Markets promotes fitness titles on plexiglass spinners in high-traffic areas of the store -- from the entrance to deli and pharmacy -- sales increase "in the big-time double digits and maintain their velocity afterward," said Etter.

Wegmans, meanwhile, devotes a standing spinner near pharmacy to fitness and health magazines. It is just one of many publication and food product tie-ins throughout the store. Noting "there's no scientific way to confirm title velocity just from the spinner because UPC codes don't indicate in-store locations," Steve Becker, Harrisburg's general manager, said when he's "in the stores working with Wegmans' merchandisers and supervisors," they're "continually shifting copies from the mainline displays to outposts." Standout titles are Fitness, Shape, Men's Fitness and Men's Health, each moving between 70 and 80 copies monthly, per store, at Wegmans, he added. "It takes daily service to upkeep these locations."

Reflecting how informational materials help uplift the entire store, Heather Pawlowski, Wegmans vice president, general merchandise, told the recent 2005 Magazine Publishers of America Retail Conference that "reading's ability to connect with our customers is far greater than the percentage of sales it holds within our total store volume. We want to capitalize on that connection."

To that end, the chain planograms featured magazine endcaps monthly, and builds excitement in many store departments through ongoing title promotions, including those in food and health. For example, Self Magazine sponsored a day-long event for Wegmans employees filled with free health screenings, eating tips from dietitians, exercise advice, product samples and takeaway information (which raises staff awareness and possibly maintenance of the title's displays).

"Reading connects with making great meals easy so our customers can lead healthier and better lives. We demonstrate that through our cross merchandising throughout our fresh-food areas [wine books with wines, cheese books with cheese, barbecue books with meats]," Pawlowski said.

Leveraging that connection, Wegmans continues to produce and direct-mail Menu -- its five-year-old quarterly -- to its best customers, and display copies for sale throughout the store.

Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, gives a health and wellness edge to the customers it believes will appreciate it. The chain direct-mails to 580,000 households a quality, self-produced, quarterly 12-page Health & Wellness Guide. In a recent twist, Giant Eagle has added two pages of $1- and-$2-off coupons and free coupon offers for health and wellness items. Offers are tailored to individual households based on their previous purchases under their Giant Eagle Advantage frequent shopper club membership.

"Say one person has two young children. Our offer might include organic baby food, or something different for a household with a dog," explained Rob Borella, the chain's director of corporate communications. Coupons are coded to measure sales, but the program is too new to reveal data.

Pointing to the latest issue addressing antioxidants and allergens, among other topics, Borella called the guide "the strongest education piece we have besides the Web site, whose health and wellness page gets several thousand hits on average each month. One way we help customers enjoy their food is by helping them live a health and wellness-oriented lifestyle. We do that in many ways, including direct mail, the Web site, signs, health screenings, the sale of health books and magazines, product labels, and involvement in sponsored educational events."

Borella and Mandy Kiggins, director of advertising, described the variety of initiatives under the singular Healthy Connections marketing umbrella. Among them:

- Devoting one slot per hour on its in-store radio network to a health and wellness message, such as an upcoming pharmacy screening in a store or the launch of a new natural or organic product.

- Conveying knowledge at the product display to inspire purchase confidence. In about half of Giant Eagle's 219 supermarkets, it's introducing new tags in produce, meat and other perishables, such as "Clamshell Strawberries /full of vitamin C & fiber/ perfect for pies, salads, smoothies or with ice cream/ refrigerate in clamshell container for up to 3 days."

- Offering brochures on the nutritional content and ideal cooking methods for seafood.

- Hosting Cooking Light magazine's Annual Health and Food Tour in parking lots outside of Giant Eagle stores. The April event delivered more than 250 recipe cards, brochures on healthy eating and living and product samples directly to shoppers, and was sponsored by brands like PAM, Atkins, Bigelow Tea and Smucker's.

- Ongoing health screenings and group store tours for customers with special dietary needs, under chain nutritionist Judy Dodd.

- Distributing Fun With Food brochures to kids at community events and at minor league baseball parks.

- Creating new labels for the chain's 5,500 private-label products might be forthcoming, beginning with new items in 2005, with icons denoting which are gluten-free, high in fiber, or possess related attributes.

By first-quarter 2006, Giant Eagle is considering installing central information kiosks in stores as one-stop destinations to learn about food values and health and wellness. Departments might coordinate nutritional information relevant to specific times, such as National Heart Month.

"The more we move into a serious approach to whole health, the more critical the role for information is in the process. Books and magazines are an incredibly key source of that information," said Bill Bishop, president, Willard Bishop Associates, Barrington, Ill. "A number of chains do their own brochures. We ought to ask why go through the extra effort when others are ready to do this work and let you make a margin on it.

"The battle here is for who wins the vote of confidence and becomes the turn-to source," he added.