MAKING NEW MOMS INTO LOYAL SHOPPERS

AUSTIN, Texas -- Whole Foods Market is babying its customers with Whole Baby, a program for new and expectant parents set to launch next month.In stores, Whole Foods will offer free nutrition educational booklets with coupons for natural products. Through childbirth education partners like nurses, it will distribute canvas tote bags containing product samples, information and special product offers

AUSTIN, Texas -- Whole Foods Market is babying its customers with Whole Baby, a program for new and expectant parents set to launch next month.

In stores, Whole Foods will offer free nutrition educational booklets with coupons for natural products. Through childbirth education partners like nurses, it will distribute canvas tote bags containing product samples, information and special product offers to pregnant women.

Whole Foods is also partnering with Mothering magazine to present free lectures this fall in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta that will focus on recipes and nutrition for mother and baby.

"Everyone wants that new family [as a customer], so I totally applaud Whole Foods for doing this," said Rosemary Maxfield, vice president of the J. Brown Agency, a promotional firm in Stamford, Conn.

What can traditional retailers, whose record with baby clubs is mixed, learn from the natural food retailer's approach?

Conventional store baby clubs often are launched with coupons, samples and newsletters. Some, like Kroger and Pathmark, set aside parking spots close to store entrances for expectant moms.

Whole Foods is taking the idea further by focusing on mother and baby health to strengthen its connection with customers, said Glenn Hausfater, managing partner for Partners in Loyalty Marketing in Chicago, a marketing consulting firm.

Indeed, natural retailers say people often adopt a natural lifestyle around the time of the birth of a child.

The Whole Baby program could be replicated fairly easily by other retailers by creating well-baby centers and baby-and-mom days, he said. On-site nutritionists could give lectures and be available to customers to talk about health during pregnancy and for newborns.

"These types of thing are high-value and low-cost," he said. "Supermarkets shouldn't try to compete on price alone. There's a real value in delivering beyond price, and who better than supermarkets to show they're a premier platform for this kind of information?"

Hausfater expected some of the smaller, more innovative supermarkets to begin similar programs. "It all goes back to how does one differentiate oneself."

Maxfield wasn't sure other retailers could emulate Whole Foods' program.

"Whole Foods is interesting because there's a big trend towards retro -- cloth diapers, organic foods, customers making their own foods," she said. "Whole Foods could be a unique player because they're hitting a niche."

She said traditional stores could do more by tracking what consumers buy through computerized cash registers and targeting buyers of baby products, though.

Still, anything retailers do to reward new parents will come as an improvement to these shoppers, for whom the baby aisle tends to be disorganized and difficult to negotiate. "Stores have such a big opportunity here, and they've not tapped into rewarding parents," Maxfield said.