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For years, natural food retailers have touted the health and societal benefits of various foods at consumer events held in their stores. The gatherings used to attract only the most serious health nuts, but today informational sessions are demystifying these products for more mainstream audiences. Back then, only the true nutrition gurus attended these functions, said Patti Milligan, director of nutrition

For years, natural food retailers have touted the health and societal benefits of various foods at consumer events held in their stores.

The gatherings used to attract only the most serious health nuts, but today informational sessions are demystifying these products for more mainstream audiences.

“Back then, only the true nutrition gurus attended these” functions, said Patti Milligan, director of nutrition and public relations at Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Markets, and a registered dietitian. “The events have broader appeal. We have a much larger palette” of activities.

Sprouts has no trouble attracting consumers to its health- and nutrition-focused gatherings. More than 600 people attended a recent two-hour in-store discussion on gluten-free eating, held at selected stores. It was the second such get-together Sprouts has sponsored. Two experts — one a registered dietitian and the other an advocate for people with celiac disease — led the discussion. Both speakers had been diagnosed with celiac disease. People who have the condition, also known as gluten intolerance, suffer from intestinal problems when they're exposed to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. The disorder runs in families.

As part of the discussion, the speakers reviewed the foods included in Sprouts' gluten-free food guide. Consumers sampled snacks from gluten-free vendors Enjoy Life and Mr. Krispers.

“We definitely saw an interest in the foods,” said Milligan. She related that since Sprouts has hosted these events for such a long time, their impact on sales continues to be “business as usual.”

In the audience, Milligan saw parents with young children and elderly people, “a cross section of the customers we see,” she said. “That's typical.”

Of course, such programs are popular not only with shoppers but with vendors too. The manufacturers appreciate the “third-party endorsement” of their products, Milligan said.

Sprouts has sponsored such events for a number of years. The retailer hosts about 65 gatherings every month at the company's 20 stores.

Three years ago, PCC Natural Markets hosted its first fair trade event in October, which is Fair Trade Month. While the event's focus has changed a little every year to keep it fresh, the Seattle-based natural foods cooperative always brings a grower to the stores to meet shoppers and answer questions. Last year's fair was expanded to two stores, in Issaquah and Fremont, Wash., and it focused on the rewards of fair trade for growers and producers. Fourteen vendors attended. Shoppers enjoyed samples of coffee, tea, sugar and even rice.

“The response was tremendous,” said Diana Crane, community and public relations manager for PCC Natural Markets, which operates eight stores. “We had 500 people come both days. I really think the more excitement you can create around products, the better for everyone.”

Fair trade is designed to help small farmers in developing countries gain direct access to international markets. Products that bear the Fair Trade Certified seal mean they were purchased at a fair price, and produced under fair labor conditions and under environmentally sustainable methods, such as without agrochemicals or genetically modified organisms.

“We get all kinds of confusion as to what fair trade is,” Crane said. “People ask, isn't that free trade? No. People don't understand the difference between Fair Trade Certified and fairly traded.”

Products that are Fair Trade Certified have met the stringent criteria set by Trans Fair USA, an independent third-party certifier of fair trade products in the U.S. Items that are fairly traded, on the other hand, have undergone a different auditing program to ensure that growers are fairly compensated for their product.

The in-store event sheds light on the concept, which is still fairly new to most people. Last year, shoppers seemed to grasp the advantages of buying products grown according to fair trade principles, Crane said. She even heard shoppers remark that they would have purchased the products sooner if they had known about the benefits.

Measuring the impact of the event on sales is difficult, since PCC only sells fair trade coffee. The other foods probably get a boost from the promotion, Crane said.

“It heightens the other categories people were not aware of,” she said. “Sugar and rice are the newest categories we've added.”

An even more popular event is PCC's Healthy Living Fair, which has been held annually for the last five years. The fair, held at PCC's store in Issaquah, attracts about 9,000 shoppers, who sample a variety of foods provided by 125 vendors.

“It's all about explaining the health benefits of the foods,” Crane said. “People who've never been in our stores will stop because of the event. People try new foods like tofu and say, wow, this is really good. Next time they're offered tofu, they'll try it again. Intuitively, we know it's good for sales.”

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market stores conduct all sorts of health and nutrition events, depending on the local market. For instance, a store in Ann Arbor, Mich., offers free “Food for Life Nutrition and Cooking Classes,” presented by the Cancer Project, on an ongoing basis. This month the store scheduled free discussions, led by nutritionists and other experts, covering topics such as asthma and allergies, leaky gut syndrome and chronic bowel and digestive problems. Next month, a naturopathic physician is scheduled to discuss approaches for treating osteoporosis, menopause and other health concerns affecting women.

Shoppers this month were invited to participate in free “tasting tours,” led by a registered dietitian, at the Whole Foods in Lamar, Texas. The hour-long tours were designed to teach shoppers how to read labels, understand health benefits and plan healthy meals. Free samples of selected foods were included.

In the Big Apple, the Whole Foods stores this year teamed up with the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts to present healthy cooking demonstrations, featuring seasonally inspired vegetarian dishes. The two-hour sessions took place on Tuesday evenings this year at three Manhattan stores.

Over the years, Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets stores have invited shoppers to attend similar events. Most recently, the chain in March hosted a holiday tasting fair showcasing all-natural meat. Earlier this year, Whole Foods, which has 191 stores, announced its plan to acquire Wild Oats' 110 stores.

Such in-store programs are not limited to natural food stores. Conventional retailers are jumping into the game, too. For instance, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans targets very young consumers with store tours that highlight basic health and nutrition principles.

Jane Andrews, the retailer's registered dietitian, developed the curriculum and materials for fourth graders. Topics covered include the food pyramid, serving sizes, fat, the benefits of vitamins A and C, fiber and the lean percentage labeling on meats. Kids have a chance to taste a variety of foods during the two-hour tours, and the activity ends on a fun note with a treasure hunt in the store.

Store events are definitely hitting a broader audience these days as conventional shoppers embrace the idea of eating to maintain health or to treat conditions.

“It's not just those people who are yoga enthusiasts or die-hard nutritional folks,” said Lisa Lazarczyk, a Boston-based public relations and marketing specialist representing natural and organic companies. “I think the average consumer has become more aware of ingredient profiles, and have a willingness to try them. When there's an opportunity to sample products, there's that willingness to take the products.”

Of course, it doesn't hurt that natural foods have come a long way along the road to better taste. Improved flavor makes the foods more appealing to a wider audience. “The taste profiles have changed,” Lazarczyk said. “Manufacturers have taken these organic ingredients, worked with them and created new and better products.”

Road Trip

A natural products marketing company will hit the road this summer and distribute thousands of food samples at supermarkets in New England, the Midwest and the Northwest on behalf of natural food manufacturers.

Stops at Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats Markets, Shaw's and ShopRite stores are included on Mambo Sprouts' itinerary. The company's road trip will begin in June in New England and wind down in the Pacific Northwest in October.

The company's van tours have gained in popularity. When it launched in 2005, Mambo hit one area, Los Angeles, and conducted about 20 store demonstrations.

This year the Mambo vans will conduct 34 in-store demonstrations in each of the three regions. Seven to 10 product samples will be distributed during each of the stops. Mambo's colorful vans are eye-catching, with manufacturer names and logos printed on three sides.

Matthew Saline, president and chief executive officer of Collingswood, N.J.-based Mambo, credits the product demonstrators with making the mobile marketing program work.

They are a little different from the folks consumers are used to seeing handing out food samples in supermarkets, he said. Mambo's demonstrators are trained by the food manufacturers to be well informed on the nutrition and other product attributes so they can speak intelligently with natural food consumers after samples have been distributed. The demonstrators provide manufacturers with feedback on how consumers responded to the foods.

“These are not your average sample distributors,” said Saline, whose company recently celebrated its 10th year in business. “These are people in their late 20s, they have master's degrees, they are teachers, they're people who believe in the lifestyle. We understand how to communicate with this demographic. We're there to educate people.”

In addition to hosting tasting events, Mambo Sprouts distributes coupon booklets in some 1,000 retail outlets four times a year.

The natural products marketing company also produces a newsletter for three Whole Foods regions three times a year. The newsletter includes information and savings from the retailer's Whole Body departments.

Ralphs Supermarkets' “Ralphs Natural Choices” newsletter is also produced by Mambo biannually.
— L.M.

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