HOME PAGES: CONNECTING ON THE WEB

Pleasanton, Calif.-Based Safeway has its very own Wellness Center, but you won't find it located in any stores. In fact, where it exists there isn't a white-coat-clad worker to be found. That's because it's online, featured as a prominent tab on the retailer's home page. Click on it and you can find an encyclopedic wealth of health information everything from the side effects of bromocriptine to curing

Pleasanton, Calif.-Based Safeway has its very own “Wellness Center,” but you won't find it located in any stores. In fact, where it exists there isn't a white-coat-clad worker to be found.

That's because it's online, featured as a prominent tab on the retailer's home page. Click on it and you can find an encyclopedic wealth of health information — everything from the side effects of bromocriptine to curing a canker sore. The rapid development of health and wellness almost requires retailers to have space reserved for it on their websites, or risk becoming irrelevant as the movement grows and matures. Supermarkets don't need to have everything on their wellness page; but what is on there needs to be accurate and current, and it has to genuinely reflect the store's commitment to wellness.

“At the end of the day, you're trying to sell product, so trying to be the single source for people to go for everything probably isn't the right approach,” said Jeff Seacrist, vice president of marketing for HealthNotes, a leading health information provider.

Supermarket retailers want to be considered thought leaders when it comes to health and wellness. They've invested time and money hiring in-store dietitians, opening clinics, hosting cooking classes and installing thoughtful shelf talkers. And because Americans are more plugged in than ever, retailers have also built health content into their home pages.

“Within the past three years, and particularly in the past year, we've seen explosive growth, where retailers are getting really engaged,” said David Nazaruk, senior vice president of business development for Staywell Solutions, another company that produces content for health Web pages.

Levels of involvement on this front greatly vary. Some retailers, like Meijer, offer a wide array of services, including video presentations and a “Quick and Healthy” menu posted each week. Others might just link to an A-to-Z encyclopedia of terms and medications, or list the healthful products available in stores.

Web page content can potentially serve as a one-stop information source, providing insights on medical conditions, diet and activities for the family. However, some experts warn this all-in-one approach may be superfluous, with consumers glossing over information if it goes beyond the retailer's core competencies — food and pharmacy.

“We're an information society, so there's not a ‘need gap’ there from a consumer perspective that manufacturers or retailers need to fill,” said Michelle Barry, senior vice president at The Hartman Group, a whole health-focused consulting group.

Industry experts say the best approach is a balanced one, rooted in the retailer's identity. Consumers want product information, but they don't want to be pitched or prodded. They also want any health content to be thoughtful, and applicable to the products and services they need.

Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., has a website that features a “Health & Wellness” section, where the content leads directly to the store. This includes a guide on specialty diet items such as gluten-free and low-sodium foods, as well as information on which of those products Ukrop's carries on its shelves.

According to company spokeswoman Mandy Burnette, the site serves as an outlet for “specific services information from our pharmacy and wellness group,” and as a “good medium for us to expand upon topics that are too complicated to go over completely via in-store signage or brochures.”

Making a personal connection is also important. Supermarket retailers have delegated this responsibility wisely to their corporate dietitians, giving them space to write blogs, answer reader questions and write up recipes.

Asheville, N.C.-based Ingles Markets has a special section on its home page devoted to company dietitian Leah McGrath. One of the page's features is an “Ask Leah” column, which provides readers with an email link to contact McGrath, as well as her direct phone line. McGrath said she receives daily messages and calls from customers, wanting to know everything from cookbook recommendations to lactose-free snack options.

McGrath also blogs regularly on news topics and common threads she notices in customer feedback.

“It's almost like journaling,” she said. “You just scribble down some thoughts.”

Janet Eden-Harris, chief executive of Umbria, a consulting firm that tracks the blogosphere, noted the key to communal portals such as blogs is authenticity.

“At the end of the day, that matters more than anything,” she said.

Interactive features like McGrath's blog and her customer reply tool seem to be the wave of the future for supermarket websites, since studies show that actively engaging consumers is the most effective way to reach them. But a website's health-and-wellness section needs to do more than just include a “reply” button. It needs to be dynamic and regularly updated. People have no incentive to reread definitions or outdated health news, according to The Hartman Group's Barry.

There's profit and peace of mind to be gained through an authentic commitment to health and wellness online, she said, adding that too many retailers have simply thrown up health content because they feel they have to — because that's where the trend is.

The health-oriented home pages launched by supermarkets need time and effort to become truly effective at promoting a dialogue with customers. And one of the best ways to accomplish this is to build the site with a sharp focus that directly ties in the products and services offered.

“Customers are saying, ‘Just give me good food. I don't want a newsletter or a link provided to this or that association. Just provide me with good, high-quality food,’” said Barry.

Tool Bar

Here are some ways retailers are displaying their health commitment online.

VIDEO: Meijer's website features a short segment by corporate dietitian Sheri Steinbach called “It's Your Life, Do It Right!” with healthy lifestyle tips.

MEAL PLANS: Harris Teeter, partnering with media-friendly author Dr. Russell Greenfield, lays out seasonal product recommendations for making healthy meals.

DIETITIAN'S PAGE: Ingles Markets features blogs, short news items and a customer interaction tool on corporate dietitian Leah McGrath's section of the company website.

PHARMACY GUIDE: Safeway's “Wellness Center” tab includes a comprehensive pharmacy section, which includes links to in-store offerings and services, as well as reference material such as a drug interactions tool.

HEALTH CONDITIONS: Publix's home page links to an A-Z guide of ailments big and small.
— JW