Among retailers, there is some question about how to transform whole health from an ambitious but vague concept into a practical merchandising plan. But what is clear from available survey data is that the target customer is no stranger: He -- and she -- comprises a range of ages, ethnicities, income levels and educational backgrounds.
The ideal whole-health shopper, it seems, can be found in the supermarket any day of the week.
According to "Shopping for Health," a report from the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, and Prevention magazine, Emmaus, Pa., based on a March 1998 survey of 1,000 adults, 80% of consumers say their supermarket purchases are affected by a desire to ensure good health. About half of the study's respondents said their purchases are guided by a desire to minimize health risks or to self-treat a condition or illness.
Among the FMI and Prevention's findings regarding shoppers "highly involved" in self-care were the following:
Women, 68% of shoppers surveyed, were 9% more likely than the average to be highly involved.
Shoppers between the ages of 40 and 49, and 50 and 64 -- together about half of all respondents -- were 17% and 25%, respectively, more likely than the average to be highly involved.
College graduates, a third of the sample, were 24% more likely to be highly involved.
Respondents with household income in excess of $50,000, also about a third of the sample, were 22% more likely to be highly involved.
African-Americans, though only 9% of those polled, were 67% more likely to be highly involved. White respondents, 83% of the total surveyed, were 11% less likely than the average to be highly involved in self-care.
Other groups figured more prominently in the class of shoppers claiming "moderate involvement" in self-care. Respondents aged 18 to 24, for example, were 14% more likely than the average to be moderately involved; those with only some college were 18% more likely; and those with household incomes of $35,000 to $49,999 were 10% more likely.
"People think it's just baby boomers," said Ed Slaughter, Prevention's director of market research. "It's not a trendy movement. It's also broad." For retailers, he added, "It's not as though you are creating this corner of your store so you can get this niche customer. This will probably have to happen storewide in one way or the other so you can accommodate the mass of customers."
Slaughter said the next, and eighth, "Shopping for Health" study will be released this spring in time for the FMI's annual convention in Chicago, May 2 to 5. He said he expects the results to show an even greater level of participation in self-care.
For retailers, the really good news is that whole health carries different positive connotations for different people -- or, as FMI spokeswoman Carole Throssell said, "It's really all over the place in terms of what people are looking for."
If many baby boomers and older Americans are interested in a particular product because they believe it will help them look and feel younger, Throssell said, generations X and Y may seek out the same product for strictly preventative purposes.
It's an observation echoed by Chicago market research firm Spectra Marketing Systems in a recent analysis of vitamin and nutritional-supplement consumers. Drawing on raw data compiled in mid-1998 by Hartman & New Hope, Bellevue, Wash., Spectra concluded that the most frequent buyers of vitamins and supplements in supermarkets are shoppers aged 18 to 34 with kids in mid- to upscale suburbs (40% more likely than average), shoppers aged 18 to 34 with kids in rural towns and farming communities (41% more likely than average) and shoppers aged 55 to 64 in "traditional families" (24% more likely than average).
"Households who frequently buy vitamins and supplements from grocery stores do not skew towards any particular lifestyle or lifestage," the Spectra report noted. (In contrast, Spectra found, frequent purchasers of vitamins in drug stores, in club stores and through direct mail are more likely to be older, while frequent purchasers in health-food stores are more often adults "in the downscale urban lifestyle.")
"We advertise healthy products all the time," said Dale Eichenlaub, vice president and general manager of Harold Friedman Inc., a Butler, Pa., independent affiliated with Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y. "We see an increase in shoppers buying these products, and it looks like all customer groups are buying them. Our stores have customers in all socioeconomic levels, and the products seem to cross all demographic lines."
Vitamin sales in particular are booming, Eichenlaub said, with one Friedman store near a college town doing especially big business.
Ken Luzney, nonfood merchandiser at Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind., said the chain is planning to roll out a 12- to 16-foot section devoted to satisfying the health needs of its elderly customers. The assortment will include walkers, canes and other home health care aids.
"Whole health has different meanings to customers -- for a teen it's exercise equipment, to a middle-aged person it's vitamins, and an older person would say a walker," Luzney said. "The whole-health concept can appeal to anybody."
But if a wide variety of shoppers are hungry for products that help them live healthier lives, they're also hungry for health-related information. According to the FMI and Prevention, however, most consumers are not finding that information in the supermarket, which has lost sales as a result.
Half of all supermarket shoppers have actively sought out information about diet, nutrition or other related issues some time during the last month, "Shopping for Health" noted, but fewer than 15% of shoppers trust their supermarket "a great deal" on any of a number of topics measured by the FMI and Prevention.
"The big piece of this is the information for the consumer. It has to be readily available," said John Fagen, vice president of pharmacy at Stop & Shop Cos., Quincy, Mass., a division of Ahold USA, Atlanta. "We feel it goes beyond the vitamins, health and beauty care, and pharmacy. It's really the entire store."
On the other hand, "We aren't going to go out and change the entire format of the store," Fagen said. "We're going to incorporate [whole-health merchandising] with what we're doing already that works.
"It's still theoretical. It's going to evolve. But you're still going to have customers interested in cigarettes and ice cream, and we'll continue to provide those things, too."
Whole-Health Shopper Profile
Based on an index that measures the degree of "likelihood" of something occurring or being, the following represents a snapshot of shoppers most likely to be highly involved in self-care, with 100 denoting average involvement.
With the possible exception of the race category, the demographics of shoppers highly involved in self-care fall within an expected profile. They are more likely than all shoppers to be working women, to be middle-aged (40 to 64 years old), to be college graduates and/or to reside in a two-income household. They are also significantly more likely than other shoppers to have a household income of $50,000 plus.