As more and more Americans become health-conscious and consumer buying trends bend ever toward “free-from” and “full-of” products, having a retail dietitian program for your store — and just as important, advertising that you do — is a move that can increase profits and customer loyalty, make you stand out from the competition, and even help you expand and exult your foodservice at retail.

As it stands, over half of all supermarkets don’t employ a dietitian, as Phil Lempert, food industry analyst and editor of, said at this year’s International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association convention in Houston. It was there that Lempert and the IDDBA presented a new study they’d commissioned called Allergens: A Matter of Trust, wherein it was also revealed that over half of those surveyed (all of them either with a food allergy or providing for someone with one) said they would not only switch to a different grocery store if it had a dietitian, but that they would also make a point to shop there more often. That fact didn’t go unoticed, and the industry is on point.

“These are no-brainer solutions,” Lempert said of the results. “And the good news now is that we have a dietitian at every store of ShopRite Supermarkets, we have a dietitian in every Hy-Vee, at almost every store at Loblaws. We’ve got over a thousand retail dietitians either on a part-time or full-time basis working at retail.

“The problem is that we do a poor job of telling our shoppers that they’re there. Now, 71 percent say ‘We have no idea if your staff is trained,’ and again, over half (62 percent) said that if you train your staff about food allergies, they’re going to go to your store more often.”

But it’s not just about allergies, as anyone surveying the current market could tell you. It’s about consumers largely leaving behind the strict guidelines of various diets and flash-in-the-pan weight solutions and gravitating toward a more balanced and healthy diet, where the motto has become both “all things in moderation” and “I want what I want, when I want it.”

On a small scale  

Employing a retail dietitian can fulfil both of these consumer desires. Dietitians are, after all, trained in all the nuances of a balanced diet, and having one in the store (or even just available by appointment) is certainly more convenient than going through the hassles of a doctor’s office. While not every store can go as big as ShopRite or Hy-Vee with a dietitian at every location, there are ways to frugally incorporate only a few across a swath of territory, as Skogen’s Festival Foods in Wisconsin has.

“We actually have a team of four dietitians, and it’s amazing what they do,” says Michael Losiniecki, assistant director of deli at Skogen’s. “Our dietitians actually not only develop recipes, they’re on all of our local TV stations with segments on the morning news where they prepare food and teach people how to eat healthier. They also do in-store tours, so you can actually schedule a time with somebody free of charge to come in and help you shop and build a menu plan that’s going to be a healthier alternative.”  

“Currently our program is set up to where we have regional dietitians that cover assigned areas or communities where our stores are,” says Lauren Tulig, RDN, CD, dietitian manager and Green Bay regional dietitian for Skogen’s. “For our areas that don’t have specific regional dietitians, typically what we do is split up the opportunities based on schedules and traveling. And we function on a corporate level too. On a corporate level our dietitians write weekly recipe blogs where we share different recipes that we develop, test, take photos of, and then put right on the site. Then we use those recipes in our weekly TV cooking segments, so if you go to our website you can find the recipe along with a YouTube video of the cooking segment that shows exactly how to make it.”

The segment airs three times a week and is then promoted not only on the company’s website, e-newsletters and blog, but across all of Skogen’s social media platforms, she says, enabling them to get the most use out of each one to promote the program and its benefits. It’s this kind of advertising and direct communication with potential shoppers that has made the program so successful for the chain, and kept that close-knit part of their customer base with dietary restrictions coming back.The lean and the loyal

While Skogen’s isn’t set up to hold cooking demonstrations or in-store events, they have a test kitchen at their Green Bay headquarters, and just as importantly, they schedule in-store tours with shoppers looking for dietary guidance, Tulig says.

“We meet with guests either one-on-one or in small groups, typically 10 to 12 people,” she says of the tours. “And all of our programs are offered at no cost. That being said, we aren’t set up to do one-on-one counseling necessarily, but we partner with healthcare in the different areas that we have in the store so that we can work with other nurses or clinical dietitians, who are then able to refer their patients to us to help them interpret the recommendations that they make in a clinical setting.

“So we take those recommendations and we’re able to help those patients implement them while they’re shopping in the store. Our dietitians really understand that it’s hard for a customer sometimes, when you get to the store and you have all these issues to take care of and you’re trying to navigate the store in this very new way. So our goal is to kind of help interpret those recommendations in the store, show them products, and get them some recipes that are really simple and can easily be implemented into everybody’s lifestyle.”

So it’s a team of only four people across 25 stores that Skogen’s has doing all of this, but between those four, they’re able to measurably see the impact that their program has on sales and loyalty.

“We’re a very lean team, but we get a lot done,” Tulig says. “We’re only in certain spaces, but we’re able to travel and do a lot considering our stores are only within Wisconsin. And we’re able to really share a lot of things through social media too; and through the digital outlets and ads we’re able to reach the masses. So our store count continues to grow, and as a team we get to grow with our communities, which is a huge thing.”

In fact, customer loyalty is the biggest result of the program, she says. And in certain instances, a dietitian can win over not just one person or family, but all of the friends and loved ones they tell about it.

“For example,” Tulig says, “I just met with a lady and her husband last week. She’s in her early 30s, just got diagnosed with cancer, she’s got three kids, and I spent an hour with them in the grocery store — just showing them different ideas for what they can make for quicker meals and how to eat a little bit better, and they were almost in tears after we met. Just by the fact that somebody took the time for them, you know they’re going to be shoppers for life. It’s things like that where ultimately, when we’re out in the community taking the time to educate our guests, we really become a differentiator among our competition.”

On a large scale

Of course it’s not just small retail chains that are embracing dietitian programs — as Lempert noted, many big chains are ahead of the curve as well, among them the 260 ShopRite supermarkets on the East Coast. Natalie Menza, manager of health and wellness at the chain, was the first corporate dietitian hired by its governing cooperative Wakefern back in 2005. “Today, our Retail Dietitian Program has over 130 registered dietitians servicing over 140 ShopRite locations across the Northeast,” she says, “plus we also have dietitians and chefs in our corporate offices to support our in-store staff.”

ShopRite’s dietitian services are also entirely complimentary, and include the same services as Skogen’s, as well as one-on-one consultations, cooking and weight-management classes, samplings, and even support groups. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of the program that Menza has seen is the profound boost it gives to the chain’s reputation among its customers.

“As the only major grocery retailer in the Northeast offering free, customized nutrition services, we’re proud that we’ve become recognized as one of the leaders in the industry when it comes to providing health and wellness services to our customers,” she says. “We feel this program truly sets us apart from our competitors.”

Melanie Dwornik, another ShopRite dietitian, says that it’s her company’s ability to merge health and wellness management with taste and foodie culture that really gives them an edge — an edge they hope to bring to their retail foodservice in the near future.

“(Shoppers) have a variety of questions,” she says of those that come in to the store to learn more, “and not only on trends, but on what’s for dinner tonight, what kind of healthy recipe can I find, how do I prepare a meal for my child who has a food allergy, or my husband who was just diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease — what can I do for him? So we put the health professional in our stores as a resource for the customer, but we’re not stopping there. Not only do we provide them with health professionals, but we’re going a step further with our

chefs and connecting them with our consumers in a very similar way, and layering the culinary experience in with what we’re doing with the dietitian programming.”
Dwornik says that a lot of this is inspired by the fact that there’s a whole generation — the same one pioneering the prepared foods industry as we know it — that simply doesn’t know how to cook for themselves.

It’s not that they’re uninterested though — you need only look at the engagement between The Food Network and its audience to see that. This generation wants to know how to cook, she says,  and now that the first of them are starting to hit that critical point in life called parenthood, they’re finding that they need to know how to cook as well. And that’s where interactive dietitian programs come in.

“What really bubbled up last fall was our launch of the Family Meal Campaign,” Dwornik says. “This is where we really focused on educating the consumers by leveraging those in-store chefs in all of our health and wellness programming. Family meals are a natural tie-in for us in health and wellness because there’s so much research out there that supports the benefits of the family meal. And what we really focused on was repackaging everything we were already doing and starting to communicate it, so we can get credit for all these things that we’re doing to support our families.”

The perfect marriage

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? For many retailers who offer similar services, all that’s really needed to reel in the benefits of what they’re doing is to start refocusing shoppers’ attention toward it.
“So often, we look around and see that we’re doing so much but no one really knows,” Dwornik says. “We’ve had a retail dietitian program for 10 years and we still have customers that come into the stores that don’t realize that we have this free, valuable service.”

So like Skogen’s and others akin to them, ShopRite started spreading the word through email newsletters, commercials and internet promotions, including a Pinterest page full of recipes.

 “The customer either wants complete meal solutions ready to pick up at foodservice or they want to be able to pick up all the ingredients and make sure they have what they need to make a meal at home,” Dwornik says. And by offering retail foodservice, raw ingredients, and foodservice bundling in between, ShopRite’s been able to hit most every mark with their dietitian’s program, drawing in more and more shoppers that might have never considered speaking with a dietitian beforehand — and will never go elsewhere to do so once they have.

So what’s the next level for ShopRite, and more importantly, how can all of the benefits of having a retail dietitian tie into your prepared foods offerings? What can a retailer do to combine those forces and leave a customer with no reason to not choose their store?

“ShopRite is really looking at how we can partner together with foodservice at retail to capitalize on the demand that we’ve built within our health and wellness services, through the retail dietitian program and through our culinary education programs,” Dwornik says. “It’s about getting dietitians in the stores, looking at the trends, making sure we have coverage there, giving the customer what they want through our culinary programming, and now, it’s all about how do we give that time-starved customer the complete meal solution?

“So moving forward, specifically through health and wellness and foodservice, we’re going to be looking at how we’re researching and developing these new products, specifically for foodservice subscription programs. How do we make it easier for the customer? How do we take the thought out of it? If you need a low-sodium diet or heart-healthy or vegan diet for whatever reason, how do we give you that attribute-based meal program and get a lot of people to sign up for it, like meal kits from Blue Apron or Plated? We’re really going to be looking at all of these things moving forward, because there’s such an opportunity for foodservice at retail and grocerants. We expect this partnership between foodservice and health and wellness to be even more successful than the projections just for grocerants, because we’re overlaying that consideration for health and wellness that’s really at the top of mind for our customers.”

And it’s that marriage — between the healthy, convenient, and culinary — that’s most likely to hit 10 out of 10 points with today’s retail foodservice shopper. After all, if you can harness three major trends at once, be it with only four people or over 300 stores, you can potentially redefine you store as the best — and in some cases, only — option out there.