KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- "Ride this wave right now," Ken Nemeth, president of Valu Merchandisers Co. here, told an audience of 120 retailers gathered for the nonfood cooperative's first Whole Health Solutions Conference, held in Arrowhead Stadium, also here.
Like a coach on the adjacent home field of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, Nemeth called on retailers to give whole health serious consideration in combating alternative retailers, namely the 130 Wal-Mart supercenters in their nine-state markets. The one-day meeting Oct. 22 unified the wholesaler with its retail partners and provided VMC an opportunity to motivate retailers into implementing its Natural Solutions format -- a store-within-a-store whole-health marketing program developed by the nonfood subsidiary of Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan., for its 860 stores.
There are 13 Natural Solutions sections up and running presently. Three more stores are expected to place the whole-health section by the end of the year. Bob Carlson, director of nutrition centers for VMC, said Natural Solutions will be in more than 25 stores by next year.
VMC is confident Natural Solutions will make its retailers competitive. "We have competed really well," said AWG president Doug Carolan, "making them [our retailers] a good alternative to Wal-Mart."
The nine-hour conference included a four-hour continuing-education seminar administered by the General Merchandise Distributors Council, Colorado Springs, Colo. It was titled "Whole Health in the Supermarket Environment." A host of VMC-retailer pharmacists in attendance received credits from Temple University for taking part in the seminar, which focused heavily on the pharmacy's place in the whole-health scheme. Presiding over the seminar were Dr. Jack Coffey from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla., and Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Retail Marketing, Libertyville, Ill.
Other presenters at the conference included a local dietitian, Nan Borchardt. Borchardt, who also appears on local radio and Fox television, gave a presentation on healthy foods, which was particularly well received by those in attendance.
"The dietitian's comments were extremely important because of the way she presented," said Wayne Hall, president of Pratt Foods, a nine-unit retailer based in Shawnee, Okla.
Mike Halliwell, pharmacy coordinator for Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan., said, "I enjoyed what Nan had to say." Balls currently operates 27 units under the Price Chopper Foods and Hen House Markets banners. Halliwell considered it the most informative aspect of the day. "Hearing direct application by a clinical person, [then] using it in our setting. We have an RD on staff; maybe [Borchardt] can give insights based on her practical experience."
Other presentations included an address on the state of the industry by GMDC president Dave McConnell; a presentation on the HealthNotes computer system -- a key component of Natural Solutions; and an aggressive "Selling Solutions" address by Carlson of VMC. "We can provide all the physical equipment, but this doesn't guarantee success," he told the audience. "Only manager commitment from the top down can make it work."
The meeting acted as a springboard for whole health and many retailers immediately embraced the idea. They thought the conference was beneficial and said information obtained there would lead to changes within their stores. "We're not into Natural Solutions too deep," said Mike Meyer, general-merchandise/health and beauty care director for Homeland Stores, an 80-unit chain based in Oklahoma City. "But this is an educational process to get us thinking about it." Without going into detail, Meyer said that there would "absolutely" be changes as a result of the meeting.
"I think it's excellent," said Hall of Pratt Foods. "It covers very new ideas for us that should help us develop more sales."
To VMC, the day was important because "as a wholesaler, our objective is to supply our retailers and set them up to win," said Joe Maslak, VMC's director of pharmacy. "With whole health, they can get into new markets and sales. I think it gives them an advantage."
Maslak stressed the importance of the pharmacy in the whole-health strategy. "With the shrinking gross margins in pharmacy, integration is a must," he said. Results of a 1999 Food Marketing Institute pharmacy survey note that since 1990, median supermarket pharmacy margins have dropped 9% to 20%.
When pharmacy is leveraged with whole health, "I agree that [increased] pharmacy margins are possible," said Meyer.