WILD OATS WELLNESS CENTER IS UNVEILED

BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Market here has made the leap from grocery retailer to health care provider.On July 13 the retailer opened to the public its first Wellness Center, adjacent to its store in the Base Mar Shopping Center here. Taking up about 3,000 square feet of space, the M.D.-supervised site includes a library devoted to books and videos on alternative medicine, an instructional kitchen

BOULDER, Colo. -- Wild Oats Market here has made the leap from grocery retailer to health care provider.

On July 13 the retailer opened to the public its first Wellness Center, adjacent to its store in the Base Mar Shopping Center here. Taking up about 3,000 square feet of space, the M.D.-supervised site includes a library devoted to books and videos on alternative medicine, an instructional kitchen for classes on holistic cooking and "practitioner rooms" where acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and nutritionists will meet with customer-patients.

A second Wellness Center, a couple of doors down from a Wild Oats in Albuquerque, N.M., opened Aug. 1, to be followed by a third in Denver in September and others in Santa Fe, N.M., Las Vegas, Phoenix and Miami by the end of the year. If the initial units are a success, said Libby Cook, executive vice president, the company will eventually extend the concept chainwide.

"Going forward, we are incorporating them into the layout of the stores themselves, but with a separate entrance," Cook said. "We see it as the next evolution for Wild Oats: we're selling groceries, but we're also educating people."

The first Wellness Centers will be staffed by four people to handle reception and administration, and between 12 and 15 practitioners, most of whom are private contractors operating on a consultancy basis. Wild Oats-employed nutritionists and "wellness guides" will serve as general advisers, Cook said.

"They're doing lifestyle counseling for people, helping them deal with the myriad issues surrounding complementary medicine," she said.

Set up as nonprofits, the first two Wellness Centers will offer services to employees free and to customers at reduced rates, with the company's insurance plan and Cook's and co-founder Mike Gilliland's personal funds making up the difference.

"These are a gift back to our employees and customers for all their support," Cook said. "At the very least, we're going to garner a lot more employee loyalty."

Cook said the Denver Wellness Center, a joint venture with Atlanta-based Everwell, which operates similar facilities nationwide, will be a for-profit model. She said, though, she was unsure how or whether the concept will actually turn a profit. "This is totally experimental."

Lisa Shapiro, Wellness Center project director, said, "I don't think that we're doing this for a profit. The goal is for it to break even." She said Wild Oats has yet to develop a set budget for the division.

The Centers' real value to the rapidly expanding retailer, according to one securities analyst, may be their capacity to demystify for mainstream consumers many of the products sold in Wild Oats stores.

"There's been such a spate of new-product introductions [in alternative remedies], but there hasn't been a whole lot of money put into educating consumers about what these products are beneficial for," said Yudi Bahl, a research analyst at Piper Jaffray, Minneapolis. "Education will go a long way in increasing sales."

Cook said Wild Oats has contracted with an outside firm to handle insurance company billing for customers whose plans cover the kinds of services the Wellness Centers will offer. She noted that in New Mexico, for example, insurance companies that cover complementary-medicine charges are required by law to reimburse for them at the same rate as for traditional treatments.

Wild Oats, via the Wellness Centers, is also developing for its web site a national network of holistic-medicine practitioners who would pay the retailer to be included. Cook said Wild Oats plans to post the names of Colorado practitioners sometime this month.

Products for sale in the Wellness Centers include the more than 3,000 books, audio- and videotapes that make up the library, Cook said.