OCEAN, N.J. -- It's taken a team effort, plus the zeal of one shopper, to execute a health-and-wellness destination in a Super Foodtown here.
When Food Circus Supermarkets hired health advocate and customer Wendy White to run its Nature's Harvest store-within-a-store, she became part of a team that includes Mike Evans, whole-health team coordinator for Food Circus, and Philip J. Scaduto, the company's vice president of administration and marketing. Their dedication in creating a flagship whole-health destination has helped the store's Nature's Harvest concept evolve from a sparse selection of organic and natural foods to a one-stop health-and-wellness destination with close ties to the pharmacy and other departments.
Food Circus, which operates 11 Foodtowns and is owned by the Azzolina and Scaduto families, began mapping out its whole-health strategy after a Whole Health Summit Conference sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, about two years ago. SN recently visited with Evans, Scaduto and White to learn more about their whole-health vision.
"One of the things that got our curiosity was the growth of the category, and secondly, more and more people of the baby boomer age are trying to live a better lifestyle, trying to eat better, exercise," Scaduto said. "We found out that today, people don't run to the doctor every time their belly aches or they feel this way or that way. They come to the supermarket, and supermarkets that are proactive in health food and educating consumers are becoming destinations for wellness-focused people."
After the sales success of a 16-foot natural and organic food section in the store, Scaduto, Evans and Joe Azzolina, president of Food Circus, made blueprints for a larger whole-health area within the 38,000-square-foot supermarket. To make room, they shortened the seasonal and soda aisles and remerchandised the entire store. They also redesigned the section to create a "natural" look complete with light-wood-paneled fixtures and chalkboard signage. The retailer positioned Nature's Harvest to face the pharmacy, which is adjacent to the health and beauty care section. The 3,000-square-foot store-within-a-store is flanked on one side by the kosher and natural frozen aisle, which includes eight doors of frozen organic products. Next to that is an eight-foot dairy case of various soy products like humus, pudding, yogurt and milk, along with free-range chicken eggs. The book-and-greeting-card aisle is positioned on the other side of Nature's Harvest.
The other 10 Food Circus Foodtowns, located from Colonia, N.J., to Bayville, N.J., have adopted smaller sections or integrated the Nature's Harvest concept, but not to the extent that the Ocean store has. The Nature's Harvest offerings include over 5,600 stockkeeping units in a 16-foot aisle of natural health and beauty products, a 28-foot snacks and chips aisle, several display racks and spinners containing health-oriented books and magazines, four feet of natural pet foods, an assortment of natural cleaning products, and 1,200 vitamins and herbal supplements, including a Nature's Harvest private-label line of vitamins.
Other elements within Nature's Harvest include a four-foot display of Burt's Bees natural health and beauty care products, which the company is considering expanding to six feet. The display offers testers of the products and is topped by a TV playing a promotional video for the brand. Hemp-based beauty care products also are included in the Nature's Harvest assortment, as are energy bars -- the Luna brand is the sales leader -- and some ethnic natural products like Japanese seaweed. One natural-relaxation-themed display offers incense, aromatherapy products and compact discs of world music. Bottled water is stacked on endcaps near the front of the Nature's Harvest section.
White, manager of the Nature's Harvest store, said that although organic and natural products might be more expensive, prices have been declining, making them more appealing to everyday shoppers. "But," she added, "what's a few extra pennies when you're talking about your body?"
The whole-health concept opened last April in this affluent community, and it has been attracting a mixed bag of young and elderly consumers, who also come from nearby towns like Asbury Park, Neptune and Tinton Falls, White said.
White, whose resume includes stints at health-food stores and as a massage therapist, came on board over six months ago, shortly after she moved to the area. She had been looking for a supermarket that catered to her healthy lifestyle.
"Whole health is going so mainstream, it's becoming more of a way of life," she said. "The mainstream is still junk food, but the fact that a New Jersey supermarket has a health-food store within it is a big sign of the times -- New Jersey isn't exactly California [where health food stores are more common]."
She said Nature's Harvest has such a complete array of offerings that customers who had to shop at three or four different health food stores now only need to shop at Nature's Harvest.
Evans, who also serves as the store manager at another Food Circus Foodtown in nearby Wall, said White's experience as a customer and a lifelong health enthusiast has been crucial to the whole-health initiative.
"It's very important to have somebody that knows the material, and plus, she's very personable with the customers -- you need that," he said. Like White, Evans also enjoys a healthy lifestyle and is a frequent user of many of the products in the Nature's Harvest store.
Scaduto said the flagship Nature's Harvest contributes 5% of store sales, but the influence it has on related categories throughout the supermarket -- like the meat department, which offers Bell & Evans poultry and Coleman natural beef; the health and beauty aisle; and the 12-foot organic produce department -- is hard to measure.
"Nature's Harvest is part of our whole marketing effort, and it has been a bolster and a direct benefit to other departments," Scaduto said.
Food Circus promotes its whole-health store-within-a-store format with full-page inserts in its weekly in-store circulars and with billboard signage.
The store also does a lot of sampling with its natural and organic products.
"Every time we put a little bit of a product out there for sampling, we get a run on it," said White.
Many of the store's whole-health endeavors tie into the pharmacy. The store has a nurse, Nancy Perkins, R.N., who visits on Mondays and Thursdays to take patients' blood pressures. A Healthnotes computer kiosk and reference guide has also proven to be a "tremendous asset to the whole program," according to Scaduto.
In addition, the store is working on adding diabetes screenings, as well as getting a nutritionist and massage therapist on a part-time basis.
Some of the store's vitamin and supplement suppliers also train the pharmacists about their products so that they can help answer customers' questions and recommend remedies.
"We found that it's important to have pharmacists trained in these other things," said Evans.
To stir up excitement about organic foods and healthy living, the store recently hosted cooking demonstrations given by chef Tom Ney. On April 28, all 11 stores held Organic Kids Day to bring awareness of organic foods to children. The stores gave away balloons and coloring books, and "made it fun for the kids," Evans said.
The Ocean Foodtown's aggressive whole-health strategy positions the store as a health-oriented, one-stop shopping destination, helping it compete against both local health food stores and supermarkets like Shop Rite and Pathmark.
Although the store's transformation has already been extensive, the whole-health team said there is still much to do.
"More and more people are concerned about the earth and what they put into their bodies, so it's a growing category and it's here to stay," Evans said. "[Our program] is in the infant stages right now. We've still got a lot on our plate and a lot of things we want to accomplish."