United stands on wellness

United Supermarkets’ Living Well initiative earns the chain Grocery Headquarters’ “Wellness Retailer of the Year” recognition.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

Many supermarkets created wellness programs as a way to encourage their shoppers to eat better. However officials at United Supermarkets learned early on that a successful wellness commitment must delve much deeper. By fully embracing and staying abreast of its consumers’ ever-evolving dietary needs, the Lubbock, Texas-based chain has created a unique, four-pronged approach that has allowed the company to take its health and wellness program to new heights.

That is no easy task considering that shoppers in the regions that United Supermarkets services, primarily the Dallas/Fort Worth area, have plenty of options when it comes to making healthy food purchases. Consumers can visit “low frills” and discount retailers, or high-end grocers that set their sights on “foodies.” Most neighborhoods in this area also have conventional supermarket chains that feature healthy options, as well as independent operators and natural food stores focused solely on health and wellness.

While some might find this a difficult marketplace to compete in, United Supermarkets has found a way to rise above the competition and stand out in this crowded market. “Our goal was to provide wellness solutions that are simple, easy and convenient for our Market Street shoppers,” says Alicia Brown, the chain’s dietician and health and wellness marketing manager. “We are dedicated to making this an effortless journey for our guests because the easier it is for people to practice healthy living, the more people will stick to it.”

This dedication has helped earn the chain recognition and loyalty among its shoppers, as well as the title of Grocery Headquarters’ 2011 Wellness Retailer of the Year.

United is a 51-store chain that operates in 30 Texas cities and has almost 10,000 dedicated team members serving guests and their communities. United’s founder, H.D. Snell, opened the first store in Oklahoma. His philosophy: uphold a commitment to value, high quality products, outstanding guest service and community involvement.

The United chain, which is now run by the Snell family’s fourth generation, used this mission statement to establish a new brand targeted specifically at consumers eager to live healthier lifestyles. The division, called Market Street, is an 11-store banner known for its fresh, take-home cuisine, restaurants and a mix of gourmet and everyday grocery items. It was also the perfect  “laboratory” for United to evolve an all-encompassing wellness program unique to the competitive Texas marketplace.

“It is our mission to deliver ultimate service, superior performance and have a positive impact on our shoppers,” says Brown. “Based on these values, the banner is the perfect destination for families living different healthy lifestyles.”

In the beginning

Although consumers have spent the past five years demanding their favorite grocers carry healthier merchandise, United’s wellness commitment can be traced back to 1998, when the company opened its first Market Street location in Wichita Falls. The store was positioned as a “world-class food concept store, combining everyday groceries and competitive prices with specialty and gourmet products. The store also included a wide variety of foods from its different restaurant venues available for dine-in or take-out.

Among the store’s features was a Living Well Whole Health Center for shoppers who enjoy a natural lifestyle. “The center was stocked with natural, organic and bulk foods and leading supplement brands. A full-time whole health care consultant was available to answer questions and give advice for living well,” says Brown.

By 2006, United established a chain-wide commitment to wellness. As part of the program, the company developed a nutritional tagging system to help its shoppers navigate specialty items and make better choices. Merchandise was grouped into five categories: gluten-free, organics, low-sugar or sugar-free, lean meats and dairy and specialty health items. Each category was assigned a specific color and items were grouped and displayed on store shelves based on their coordinating colors.

Soon thereafter, new introductions and increased assortments began causing confusion among consumers. By 2006, the chain revamped its wellness strategy and began fully developing its Living Well program.

The first step in getting the program off the ground was to create a framework around nutrition, health and wellness. That was when Tyra Carter, PhD, RD, LD, the company’s first dietitian, joined the team. Brown soon followed in 2008, and anyone at the company will say that the duo has been instrumental in raising the bar on the value the Living Well concept provides.

“The program is continually evolving, especially as consumer needs continue to surface,” says Brown. “The core of our program is to provide guests with solutions to eat better. We have the basic skeleton and it is the dietician’s job to evaluate consumers’ needs and guide the chain to build layers on top of this skeleton.”

The four-pronged approach

With so many different consumer approaches to wellness, it made sense for United’s Living Well program to be all encompassing. To ensure it appealed to the masses, the program highlights four basic components, each one designed to help any consumer embark on or maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The NuVal Nutritional Scoring System
The first Living Well initiative was the transition of its previous labeling system to the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System in 2008. Developed by an independent panel of nutritional medial experts from recognized universities and health organizations, the NuVal scoring system was created to help consumers make better food choices.

All merchandise is graded with a NuVal score from 1 to 100—higher scores indicate a higher nutritional value. The scores are based on more than 30 nutrient categories, including carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. They also identify which items fall into specific health and lifestyle categories, such as gluten-free, organic or low sodium. The tags also explain how these products fall within USDA dietary guidelines and Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes. Scores are tagged on product labels and signs throughout the stores. To date, the chain has 11,000 SKUs labeled scored through NuVal and according to Brown the program is updated each month.

Naturals and Organics
Whether it is an increased awareness of nutrition and health, concern over the contamination of fresh foods or physician-directed dietary needs consumers’ infatuation with organic and natural foods has pushed the category into the mainstream. Currently a $39 billion business, sales are expected to jump by 45% by year’s end, according to Packaged Facts, based in Rockville, Md. The research firm reports that sales could even surpass $78 billion in the next five years.

Nearly half of all U.S. adult grocery shoppers purchase foods and beverages that are either natural or organic, with a growing number actively seeking out such product. However, shoppers are no longer purchasing this merchandise solely in natural food stores. Instead, naturals and organics have found a home across conventional supermarkets, and United is using this trend to its advantage.

United made a commitment to a natural and organic product offering in 2006, a move that solidified the company’s commitment to wellness. With an effort to provide something for everyone, natural and organic merchandise is represented across every single category the chain features, and new items are added regularly.

The chain’s Living Well general merchandise section, also called the Whole Health offering, features just over 7,000 SKUs across vitamins, supplements, body care, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, baby care, air fresheners, feminine hygiene, hair color, cotton balls and candles. These items can be compared to those sold in a health food store in terms of qualities and features, according to company officials.

“Many, if not most, are food-based wherever possible and free from synthetics, where possible, and they all meet standards defined by the Natural Products Association,” says Brown. ”The body care items are free from many, if not most, of the additives deemed unhealthy for our bodies, also according to the association.”

Meanwhile, the Living Well grocery section, which highlights specialty, natural and organic food products, features more than 6,500 active SKUs. It is comprised of 5,000 whole health, natural or organic foods, and 1,500 specialty items.

United tracks the Living Well grocery categories as a percentage of its overall grocery, frozen and dairy sales. The retailers’ six Dallas/Fort Worth Market Street stores, for example, account for an average of 19.5% of sales. Meanwhile, nine west Texas Market Street and hybrid stores (which are traditional United Supermarkets with a few Living Well sets) average 7% of sales.

Disease Management
Both the NuVal and the naturals and organic initiatives dovetail into the chain’s disease management efforts. With more shoppers visiting the chain seeking solutions for such issues as how to live with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders or weight issues, United is committed to assisting shoppers in making food choices that will allow them to manage their health conditions.

After hearing from customers throughout their community who wanted United to create a gluten-free section specifically for them, the chain recently expanded its efforts in this area as well. Officials say they did not need much convincing—the $2.64 billion gluten-free market is anticipated to double in size by 2015. Catering to this consumer base is not without its challenges. Gluten-free shoppers are considered some of the most educated consumer segments in the marketplace. They also think nothing of asking questions—and demand answers—from their grocers of choice.

“It is these conversations that have helped us create our gluten-free assortments,” says Brown. “We approach these shoppers as openly as they approach us, and we have consistent dialogue to find out what they would like us to carry and grow the subset.”

Stores in the chain currently feature up to an 18-foot dedicated section of gluten-free foods and beverages. These sections feature more than 300 SKUs that meet the company’s proprietary gluten-free criteria. From there, the assortment is augmented with additional gluten-free items outside of these guidelines. An impressive amount of space, considering gluten-free sales are less than 1% of the company’s total sales, according to Brown.

Coinciding with its NuVal Scoring system, the chain features a specific blue and white label that highlights gluten-free merchandise. While many products claim to be gluten-free, only those manufactured in a gluten-free facility are eligible to don the blue and white label. Once the government sets its guidelines for the parts per million allowed in a product labeled “gluten-free,” chain officials say they will then use that criteria to tag gluten-free products.

Like competitors, United’s pharmacies promise to fill prescriptions quickly and accurately while consumers complete their shopping. They offer a wide range of clinical services, from flu shots and immunizations to testing services and nutritional advice. They feature a wide selection of over-the-counter medications and personal care items, as well as free access to kiosks from Portland, Ore.-based Aisle7, that feature health, food and wellness information.

What makes United’s pharmacy departments stand out from the competition however, is the valuable knowledge its in-house pharmacists are eager to share with shoppers. Whether consumers present questions about vitamins, supplements, diabetic supplies and over-the-counter medications, “pharmacists are ready to go into detail and provide guidance,” says Brown.
Currently, the chain features 44 pharmacies in 51 stores, which range in size from 350 to 900 square feet, she says.

Navigating the waters

Following the success of the program at its original Market Street store and guests’ demand, United now features Living Well sections chain-wide across its Market Street network, as well as in United’s hybrid stores. A bit different than Market Street, United’s hybrid stores’ Living Well and Whole Health sections cater to shoppers committed to natural lifestyles, gourmet cooking or international fare. The stores also feature knowledgeable associates available to answer questions and offer advice for living well.

While United customizes and localizes assortments based on each location’s clientele in each of its banner stores, the chain’s Living Well categories comprise an average of 8- and 10-feet of every store aisle. Sets are sometimes adjusted down in size in stores with smaller overall footprints. Officials have found this integrated/segregated strategy offers an ideal mix for their customers. “While that sounds like an oxymoron, it really defines our theory,” says Brown.

For example, Living Well pasta and sauce was moved to the same aisle as the conventional counterparts, but then segregated as Living Well by being displayed on different colored shelving. Brown explains how it is easier for shoppers to take two steps to the right in the pasta aisle for example, and notice a whole complete subset of options, than to miss choices completely in a segregated ‘wellness’ section located elsewhere in the store. “We believe it is easier to navigate and make better choices when consumers are in even proximity to food categories,” she says.

The one exception—Living Well general merchandise. Brown says these items are kept segregated in effort to define the category from traditional general merchandise and to better highlight it as a destination versus a convenience department.

Believing strongly in a personal approach, to further help guests navigate the Living Well waters, Brown and Carter are often on hand at store level. Often they walk the sales floor with guests, helping them get the most for their money by offering shopping and nutritional tips and economical meal planning solutions. “We are there to make people aware that they have better options. It is grassroots education at its core,” says Brown.

The duo is also responsible for educating team members and community groups on issues relating to nutrition, health, wellness and disease management. “When NuVal rolled out for example, we needed to ensure that all team members knew the intricacies, or at the very least, could speak intelligently about the program,” says Brown. “Getting everyone on board is instrumental in the program having credibility and being a valuable source for our shoppers.” Continuing education keeps the team on its toes through online training and weekly manager meetings that delve into different nutrition topics.

As more shoppers embark on healthy lifestyles, United officials know the hard work has just begun. Never one to rest on its laurels, the chain is in the process of creating even more value around its Living Well program.

As time-starved shoppers continue their search for meal solutions, United currently offers two cooking schools, both located in Market Street stores in the Dallas/Fort Worth region. Each offers between six and eight gluten-free and healthy cooking classes per year. The chain hopes to generate more interest and add more classes and topics in the future.

What’s more, as their way of addressing childhood obesity, the retailer is also piloting healthy check lanes. Rather than feature high-calorie, sugary impulse items that children beg for at the end of a shopping trip, these check stands display dried fruit, nuts and juices. “Mom and dad no longer have to struggle with kids to make better choices. We make the battle easier by only offering healthy options,” says Brown, noting that the lane will pilot in the fall.

The chain is also taking their wellness efforts online. Through its partnership with Eating Well magazine, United features recipes, meal plans and additional healthy living content on its website, www.unitedsupermarkets.com.

“We are excited to integrate these recipes with shopping lists, making it easier for consumers to plan their weekly visits,” says Brown. “We are also exploring how to integrate these services with our weekly ad circular which can also be found online. There may be an item a shopper wants to try, but if it is part of a recipe for example, this may push them to finally try it.”

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