Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A New Role for Grocery Stores in Public Health

A 2002 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that, for each supermarket in low-income census tracts, residents increased their intake of fruits and vegetables by an average of 32%. Clearly, being able to purchase more fruits and vegetables in any community is a step toward reducing the conditions that lead to preventive chronic disease. At People's Community Market (PCM) we want to take the good idea of bringing grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods a step further. 

While having a grocery store in a community can result in healthier consumption, conventional models of grocery stores today aren’t necessarily maximizing the impact and role they could play on consumer health. Such food stores are often overlooked and underutilized as venues for addressing public health issues related to diet and lifestyle. We see this as a lost opportunity given that grocery stores are one of the most commonly shared destinations by most people and, as a result, could provide significant leverage for engaging the public.

An underpinning philosophy of the PCM brand is that grocery stores can be settings for engaging communities in addressing health issues related to diet and lifestyle. We're developing a design and plan for a food retail store for the inner city marketplace that reframes the role of the grocery store from being just a food retail business to being a preventive healthcare model that operates as a public health center and consumer intervention site. From this perspective the education and services offered in the store are as important to the business as the products it sells. After all PCM's goal will not just be to sell food, but to improve health in communities that are highly impacted by the prevalence and associated costs of preventive chronic disease.

PCM will offer a variety of in-store consumer education programs to support healthier food choices and lifestyle changes. In order to provide these programs cost effectively and leverage the expertise of others, PCM will partner with community and health organizations that have established proven approaches to engaging low-income urban populations in public health. Relationships with many of these potential partners have already been established through the work of PCM's sister organization, People's Grocery.  While these partnerships and services require refinement, examples of the kind of services PCM wants to provide include:

·      consultations and screenings
·      in-store demonstrations
·      tastings and giveaways
·      workshops and cooking classes
·      nutritional labeling
·      educational signage
·      point-of-purchase materials

We believe that the services provided through partnerships will not only benefit the health and well being of our customers, but will also bring financial benefits to our business. As customers become more knowledgeable about the benefits of a wider array of products they will likely buy more products and return to the store more often. And these programs won't just help boost financial returns. They will also provide PCM, as a small independent retailer, with a critical competitive advantage. The Washington Post recently ran a piece called "To keep up with the big stores, small retailers get creative" in which it interviewed retailers and analysts about how independent stores can compete with big companies that have large budgets for advertising and that can sell more cheaply. The gist of the responses were that small retailers should a) sell products that the big guys don’t sell, b) offer services that the big guys don’t offer, and c) provide a more intimate and service-driven connection to the shopper’s needs and desires. One successful independent retailer was quoted as saying that hosting workshops is a "more personal way to be in touch with our customers and keep them coming back".

The marketing research firm Kantar Retail came out with a case study in July 2010 about how an independent grocery store called Market Basket in New Hampshire was able to successfully compete against a Walmart located just one mile away. The study said that Market Basket's "use of personal appeals, handwritten signage, and a neighborhood brand established the grocer as not only more unique and authentic but also as more engaged with shoppers"
A key goal for PCM is to employ the kinds of strategies that give it a competitive advantage over bigger retailers by enriching its value proposition, carving a niche as a unique destination and customer experience and, through this, deepening loyalty. More importantly, these programs will support the aspirations of West Oakland residents to be more knowledgeable and capable in making healthy food choices and improving their own health.