WELLNESS AND THE WEB

The Internet has become an integral tool in many retailers' attempts to tie their pharmacies into other wellness programs.Besides offering pharmacy essentials like prescription renewals and drug information, many retailers also use their Web sites to provide more extensive health information, as well as to publicize wellness-related events taking place in their stores.The starting point for most supermarkets

The Internet has become an integral tool in many retailers' attempts to tie their pharmacies into other wellness programs.

Besides offering pharmacy essentials like prescription renewals and drug information, many retailers also use their Web sites to provide more extensive health information, as well as to publicize wellness-related events taking place in their stores.

The starting point for most supermarkets is their pharmacy programs. The Internet has become an opportunity for retailers to improve their in-store pharmacy operations. Just about every supermarket with a pharmacy now offers consumers the option of requesting a prescription refill on the company Web site.

For example, a brief form online that eliminates the need to call ahead or wait in long lines has become a standard among the large chain stores, such as Kroger, Cincinnati; Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C.; and Shaw's, West Bridgewater, Mass.

"It allows our customers to easily order prescriptions online when it's most convenient for them," said Amy Colella, Walmart.com's manager of corporate communications. Walmart.com, Kroger.com and GiantEagle.com provide information about drug interactions of common prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs. Women's health questions are also answered.

Some Web sites are more interactive than others. Information about filling a prescription is standard; being able to ask which herbal concoctions will disrupt a birth control prescription is something special.

The drug interaction and information sections at Kroger.com and Wal-Mart.com are powered by their own databases. Many other supermarkets, like Winn-Dixie, have a link to an outside Web site.

"Supermarkets are deciding that they don't just want to be a place to go buy foods to make meals with. They really want to be a resource in a consumer's life," said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. "That covers a lot of things -- not just the products, but also providing recipes and information on health conditions, too. The more the customer begins to rely on them for information, in addition to the products, the more you begin to form loyalty with that customer."

Many supermarkets are also offering drug and nutrition content from outside sources that solely offer health information, such as Healthnotes.com, based in Portland, Ore. Healthnotes.com provides information on health, food and nutrition for retailers' Web sites and in-store kiosks. Kroger; Wild Oats, Boulder, Colo.; Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif.; Costco, Issaquah, Wash.; and New Seasons Foods, Forest Grove, Ore., all use Healthnotes' services. Customers don't go directly to Healthnotes.com, however, because they may never go back to the supermarket's Web site, said Amy Garland, marketing manager, Healthnotes.com.

Healthnotes.com also sets up informational kiosks in pharmacies that give consumers information on blood pressure, nutrients and exercise habits. Those kiosks also refer customers to the retailer's Web site, further driving hits of the Web site and, in turn, sales.

"Our goal is to help people live healthier lives. The best way to do that is to provide the information consumers want and need, when they need it, at the point of decision, whether that be in-store or online," Garland said. "We believe that supermarkets have a unique opportunity to reach out to consumers, and provide the information and products they need to make healthy lifestyle choices."

Raley's, Wild Oats and New Season all use Healthnotes' in-store touchscreen kiosks and position them as "healthy living destinations," both in-store and online.

Some retailers are tying their in-store events to their Web sites. Dates and times are listed, as well as additional information about the topic covered at the event. Pathmark, Carteret, N.J., recently listed information about breast health events taking place throughout March. Product sponsors were also listed on the Web site, with links to the products' Web sites. Scolari's Markets, Sparks, Nev., also has a whole health wellness Web site dedicated to events going on in its stores, in conjunction with St. Mary's Hospital, Reno, Nev.

Many retailers are using Web sites to tell consumers about store sales and offer online coupons. Combined with information about their health and well-being, consumers can make more educated decisions about products, which increases sales, according to retailers.

"We feel that each service we provide online or are looking at providing has added much value to the overall customer shopping experience," said Joanne Gage, vice president, advertising and marketing, Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla. "We recognize the need to help simplify the busy lifestyles of our customers by providing them a means to make services available to them at a time convenient to them."

An aging baby boomer population has made health and wellness hot topics. Customers are choosing self-care above going to a doctor, and supermarkets are becoming an information resource, Wisner noted.

"Those retailers who are a little savvier are stepping up and saying, 'We can do some things to help you,"' he said. "They are saying, 'This is a way we can brand our store. This is a way we can have customers place great trust in us. Not only in the products we offer, but the kinds of service and advice you can get in our pharmacy and elsewhere in our stores.' This is really a way they can go out and begin differentiating themselves." How often these Web sites are being visited is something retailers won't disclose. "Although we're unable to disclose specific numbers, customers have responded favorably to this service, and the growth rate of this business has exceeded expectations," said Colella of Wal-Mart.com.

Retailers also couldn't, or wouldn't, say exactly how much this is impacting sales. While companies might know how many people are visiting their sites, there is no way to know whether or not the online visits impact their spending when in the store, they said.

"I'm certain Web sites are driving sales. The customer is either concerned about a specific health condition or managing one," Wisner said. "The customer is now going to start finding the types of products, whether they are food [or] medicine, that they ought to be looking for or taking." The number of people who say they seek self-care before going to a doctor has doubled in the last five years, from 37% to over 60%, he said.