BALTIMORE -- Pharmacists attending the Food Marketing Institute's annual Pharmacy Conference here view whole health as a vital competitive strategy that will win supermarkets greater market share in a big consumer-driven movement.
More than 450 people turned out for this year's meeting, April 18 to 20, which was themed on whole-health issues.
Although still in its infancy, the whole-health concept is likely to become a major trend in supermarket retailing and the pharmacist will play a pivotal role. That consensus was widely shared by supermarket executives, pharmacists and suppliers interviewed by SN. John Fegan, vice president of pharmacy at Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., Quincy, Mass., who serves on the FMI's Pharmacy Services Committee, expressed strong enthusiasm. "Whole health is absolutely going to be big. Anyone who says it's not going to happen will be left behind."
He said that pharmacists are excited about the trend. "Today's pharmacist has an expectation that they're going to do more [than dispense medications]."
Whole health also is very much about consumers, Fegan noted. "Customers want to feel well and stay well, and we can help them do that through healthy products."
Ron Sims, vice president of the drug division of Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, who also serves on the FMI's Pharmacy Services Committee, agreed. "Customers are most interested in staying healthy." He emphasized that whole health is not retailer-driven, but customer-driven.
"When the consumer starts expecting it from us, it's going to force everyone into doing it," he said.
Dennis Stanley, pharmacy manager for Ukrop's Super Markets in Richmond, Va., noted, "The consumer drives the retail industry, and whole health has taken hold of the consumer already. It would behoove us to follow that lead." Stanley thinks supermarkets are in a strong position. "The primary advantage is that we have everything the consumer needs: pharmacy, over-the-counter drugs, health and beauty care, food and the expertise to bring it all together."
Asked which categories would best fit the whole-health approach, Sims of Marsh Supermarkets replied, "There aren't any categories that would be excluded."
Part of marketing whole health is not just adding new products, but also rethinking how to market existing items, said Paul Schneider, director of pharmacy operations at Food Circus Supermarkets, Middletown, N.J.
"We've been making sugar-free pies for years -- now we have to figure out how to communicate that to people. We have heart-healthy recipes, so now we're going to promote healthy prepared foods for takeout. We have it all -- it's really a question of how do we get it all together," he explained.
Bobby Camburn, assistant pharmacy manager for the Kroger Delta Division, Memphis, Tenn., thinks whole-health marketing can only take off if it has support from top-level management. "It has to start at the top," he commented. "Heads of companies have to embrace the concept and filter it down to department managers." He added that "a conference like this is definitely helpful for getting information out."
However, Richard Kunkle, vice president for pharmacy at Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa., cautions about some resistance from medical societies. "There have been objections, and also some conflicts about turf boundaries."
Yet, he views whole health as a major direction for the supermarket industry. "It's not a question of whether it will take root -- it already has taken root," he said. "The advantage is that it's something that our competition cannot offer that we can. If the grocery/pharmacy industry does not take advantage of this opportunity, then we'd really miss the boat."
J.B. Pratt, chief executive officer of Pratt Discount Foods, Shawnee, Okla., suggested that "the store without a pharmacy is at a disadvantage." He explained that "having a licensed health care professional able to counsel the customer is a big key."
A strong proponent of whole health, Pratt described the concept as "adding value to the consumer shopping experience, with an emphasis on their health and wellness." Pratt said the industry is just at the beginning. "We have some concrete ideas. The group [of industry leaders] attending this conference represent the cream of the crop -- the most progressive, the most open-minded and the most consumer-oriented. It will happen."
Robert Belknap, marketing manager of health care systems at Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals, St. Davids, Pa., cited the increased role of the pharmacist, and said that customer trust in pharmacists will also spur whole-health programs.
"There's a lot of people who have a fear of doctors and are more comfortable going to alternative places for their health -- and their supermarkets are more friendly places."
Belknap expected supermarket pharmacies would conduct more health screenings, which would identify candidates for disease-state-management therapies.
Aiyshen Padilla, marketing coordinator for Giant Food, Landover, Md., sees the whole-health trend accelerating. "It's going to happen quickly," she suggested. "Besides pharmacy and herbal supplements, it's going to include healthy natural produce, deli items, OJ -- all those things your mother said were good for you."