ATLANTA -- The produce department has traditionally been the destination for consumers looking to eat healthy. But to date, retailers implementing whole health programs in their stores have passed it over in favor of the pharmacy, according to experts at Fresh Summit '99 here, the annual convention of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
On the face of it, this decision to make pharmacy the lead might seem logical, given the quasi-medical nature of the whole-health movement. But not all stores have pharmacies, and furthermore, they only generate an average 3% of total-store sales, while produce contributes a minimum of 10%, according to Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill.
"I haven't yet seen one company with a produce executive who has taken the lead in this area, even though their department has the most to gain, the most benefits to offer and the most excitement to [promote]," he said.
To remedy this situation, Bishop proposed five strategies retailers can adopt that positions produce more prominently within the whole-health umbrella.
"Fresh fruits and vegetables are probably the number-one dietary lifestyle change a person can make to enhance their health condition for protection against virtually any of the health or wellness issues they should be concerned with," he said.
Yet, the emphasis continues to be on other products, like supplements, he noted. To get produce back in its rightful place as the easiest way for consumers to improve health, retailers must first develop an assortment strategy that satisfies the requirements of their target-oriented shopper.
In produce, this is relatively simple, since the health benefits of fruits and vegetables have long been known. This is true of both organic and conventional items, he added. The debate over the harmful effects of pesticides is secondary; the idea is to focus on the overall benefits of increased produce consumption.
While there are studies and books that back this all up, what is lacking is a single source of authoritative information at store level. Here, a properly eductaed pharmacist can play a key role, and act as an ideal way to guide consumers to all the varieties of "natural" health solutions available in produce, Bishop said.
"You're seeing clinical exchanges here, between the pharmacist and people visiting the pharmacy, with advice, counselling the consumer on which fruits and vegetables fit their particular set of circumstances," he said. "If those products are not available, the consumer concerned with diabetes, hypertension or whatever the disease, may not find that store the place to go."
Another tactic calls for stores to become a destination for health solutions. This can range from flu shots and blood-pressure screenings to a more comprehensive umbrella program that includes different applicable departments, like produce.
"I cannot tell you how many produce departments I went to and I can't find very much about health or 5 A Day," said Bishop, referring to the national campaign run by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del. "Think about your own store. What kind of statement do you make boldly that says 'We're a health connection'?"
A third emerging best practice urges retailers to develop a wellness-centered organization. Citing statistics from a study by Prevention magazine and the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, Bishop noted that 53% of shoppers rely on the advice of a staff nutritionist and 70% use the services of a natural foods expert in those stores that employ them.
"Is there an unmet consumer demand out there in retail stores, that when we move to respond to it, the consumer says thank you?," he asked.
Consumer education is a fourth strategy that has been well utilized in some areas of the store, like supplements, but perhaps not in others, like produce.
Bishop said that some retailers that have extensive, thorough information guides have gained a level of trust with consumers that keeps them coming back as repeat customers.
The final tactic, promotion, is one of the most important ones, and is listed last because the other four should be in place before this one is implemented. After all, the best promotional efforts are ineffective if there's nothing real to back them up, said Bishop.
Utilizing the popularity of the 5 A Day program is an ideal way to incorporate all five best practices into the whole-health segment, and to promote the produce department as the primary source for natural preventatives.
"Take it to the next level," said Bishop, who suggested promoting specific programs geared toward individual health conditions.
One such example Bishop provided was the "Dash Diet," which seeks to reverse mild hypertension by increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables from the current 5-a-day minimum to seven or 8 servings per day.
Studies have shown that in those people who adopt the diet, the rate of high blood pressure was reduced an average of nearly 10%, Bishop said.