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The Dietitian and the Customer

The Dietitian and the Customer


This is a story with a happy ending. It even has a moral for any supermarket retailer who still might be hesitant to employ registered dietitians.

Caroline Whitby joined Giant Eagle Supermarkets in 2008 as the Pittsburgh-based chain’s first retail dietitian. Her task was to help the company develop and implement a comprehensive wellness strategy that included hiring and deploying nutrition experts throughout its market area.

“The aisle is the best classroom,” she says.

Lynda Sadecky is a Giant Eagle customer who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003. In the beginning, she couldn’t walk and was hospitalized for a time. Finding gluten-free food was a chore, and required her to drive miles out of her way to a small health food store.

“Everything was very overpriced and sometimes the use-by dates were past due,” she recalled.

Lynda met Caroline after finding a Giant Eagle brochure announcing classes and counseling sessions for diet-related conditions. The two began meeting. Sometimes they would tour the store looking for gluten-free foods. Other times they would talk.

“I would meet with her for my personal nutrition counseling,” Lynda continued. “Caroline would do a ‘walk and talk’ with me. She’d take me out to the parking lot and we’d do some laps, and she’d ask me how my diet’s going.”

Currently, the chain has 21 dietitians on staff, covering 26 stores. The goal is to hire a total of 31 nutritionists who will be situated in such a way that a customer doesn’t have to travel more than 15 minutes to get to a Giant Eagle store with a dietitian. The strategy to to give Giant Eagle’s nutrition program a high profile, no matter where the store is, or how big it is.

“We want to inspire the customer in the aisle, so that the customers can bump into us, talk to us and ask questions,” says Whitby. “Not everyone wants to go into a classroom or a counseling room.”

Nutrition education at Giant Eagle is based on three planks: Healthy eating, kids nutrition and diabetes prevention. In the aisles, the chain has adopted the NuVal nutrition rating system, though it is testing an enhanced labeling program that combines the NuVal scores with special attribute labels, such as low-sodium or gluten-free. The 26-store test continues and so far looks promising.

For category managers, dietitians are emerging as sales motivators — provided the product being promoted fits the right profile.

“It goes beyond the sampling that supermarkets typically do because we’re giving customers nutrition education,” notes Whitby. “We’re not just pushing the product.”

Sadecky has sampled those kinds of products herself, and has participated in classes, tours and talks. Now, she urges friends with nutrition and diet challenges to call on Giant Eagle.

 “I can’t think of any better place to go than a supermarket to learn about food and health,” says Sadecky. “They will hold your hand and take you around the store if need be and show you the best selection of foods for you.”

A woman who was hospitalized for her condition, required transfusions and could barely leave her home now teaches Zumba classes at the local YMCA.

“I tell people to go to Giant Eagle,” says Sadecky. “Don’t waste your time or your money anywhere else. You’re going to learn a lifestyle change and they’re going to stick with you and help you.”

The lesson is obvious: Growth happens best when it’s one customer at a time. That way, the loyalty sticks.

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