March 2020 Issue
Writing for Retail Customers
By Lori Zanteson
Vol. 22, No. 3, P. 32
Supermarket dietitians are using their writing skills to leverage the impact and reach of consumer nutrition information.
Retail dietitians constantly create new and innovative ways to reach their store’s customers, educating and helping them make more healthful nutrition choices. In addition to an already full agenda of in-store responsibilities, retail RDs are taking the time to write—and lots of it. They’re writing everything from in-store demo and intercom announcements to articles for store magazines and social media posts, using every avenue they can to ensure their messages resonate and reach as many people as possible. With so many ways to tap inspiration and several resources at their fingertips, there’s never been a better time for retail dietitians to write their way toward making a healthful difference.
The Many Things They Write
Traditionally, retail RDs have worked behind the scenes planning and writing in-store materials, such as store flyers and newsletters, recipes, and scripts for demos and educational classes. Those working at larger chains may write articles for a full-featured, glossy store magazine, such as Weis Markets’ HealthyBites Magazine and Kroger’s Live Naturally, complete with seasonal topics, recipes, color photography, and nutrition education articles. Many RDs continue to do this; however, advances in publishing and the increase in internet-based content have taken their writing to the next level—the digital level. Most supermarket retailers post these publications on their websites in addition to offering hard copies. They also have webpages devoted to recipes and nutrition, giving retail RDs a whole new platform to contribute and expand their reach to customers and noncustomers alike. Social media takes it a step further with messages and posts, blogs, podcasts, and live digital broadcasts on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, all of which can be tagged and shared.
Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD, retail dietitian coordinator for The Little Clinic of Kroger in Columbus, Ohio, writes prolifically for several of Kroger’s online avenues. “I’m writing plant-based, food safety, meal planning, and mindful eating nutrition blogs for our Kroger (www.kroger.com) and Kroger Health (www.krogerhealth.com) sites, articles for our internal The Little Clinic Newsblast, and I have my own spot, “Ask the Dietitian,” in our Kroger Live Naturally (https://livenaturallymagazine.com) magazine,” she says. She also writes nutrition tips on social media for Kroger’s private label, Simple Truth, for a blog called Mondays with Molly. Outside of Kroger, she’s a columnist for Progressive Grocer, a food industry news magazine.
What’s more, retail dietitians do lots of planning when it comes to writing. They typically work 12 weeks in advance, using an annual editorial or promotional calendar. No matter what type of publication a store publishes (eg, a weekly circular or bimonthly magazine), most supermarket chains generally choose themes before the calendar year begins, and, from those themes, they develop subthemes, and, within each subtheme, articles and recipes evolve. This is how Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, manager of nutrition and lifestyle initiatives for Weis Markets in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, who drives the content for the chain’s HealthyBites Magazine, generates ideas for the bimonthly publication. She and her team of six in-store RDs brainstorm ideas, generally beginning with health awareness months and seasonal trends such as holidays, back to school, or summer grilling. And they give common topics a new spin. Grilling goes from basic to plant based—instantly making it a hot topic.
Nikita Grove, RDN, LDN, a retail dietitian for Wakefern Food Corporation in Philadelphia, plans her monthly campaigns around the corporate monthly theme and weekly subthemes. “I also look at what items are on sale or have any coupon offerings. Other factors that come into play include seasonal offerings or promotions and ‘awareness months,’ such as diabetes and heart health months, which we can highlight in coordination with resources that are made available by the many nonprofit organizations we work with,” she says.
“I get most of my newsletter inspiration from talking to customers,” says Jessica Siegel, MPH, RD, a dietitian for Gelson’s Markets in Culver City, California. “Our clientele is quite sophisticated and educated, so they always have good and interesting questions. I also attend conferences and read articles in publications such as Today’s Dietitian and The New York Times,” she says. Siegel has been the only dietitian for Gelson’s 27 stores for 18 years. She writes Nutrition Notes, a monthly full-color, four-page newsletter on nutrition and health, and develops recipes, including many best-selling salads sold by Gelson’s kitchen—a lofty solo endeavor, but one she enjoys. “I have always written my own content, and I feel it has helped me build a loyal base who trusts me and seeks my guidance when they have questions about their diets or need product recommendations,” she says.
Hembree taps into her customers for inspiration as well. “A large source of inspiration is gathered from my responsibilities within my role at Kroger: providing nutrition counseling through telenutrition and in-store clinic appointments. I find I can get a good read on what is overwhelming, confusing, popular, or interesting from what our customers/patients bring up in our discussions,” she says. In addition, she finds webinars on various nutrition topics from different companies, such as Dietitian Central, Orgain, General Mills Bell Institute, and Kellogg’s, to be insightful. She also looks to websites and newsletters such as FoodNavigator-USA, Progressive Grocer, ScienceDaily, and Supermarket News to keep abreast of current nutrition issues and grocery industry highlights.
Driver of Communication
Weis’ HealthyBites Magazine serves as the primary communication vehicle for customers regarding nutrition, health, and wellness. According to Stark, “It also drives what RDs are doing in store and makes their monthly event planning more efficient.” They can use recipes for demos or samples and even create workshops around it, bringing the content of the magazine to life through store events. The magazine’s content also is used to drive social media and dietitian TV appearances.
The production of HealthyBites Magazine has evolved over the years. Originally, the Weis dietitian team wrote the content, sold ads, developed recipes, and took charge of photography, layout, and video production. Now that the team has grown from four to nine RDs over the past three years, Weis decided to work with a creative design and publishing partner to produce HealthyBites Magazine. The arrangement enables the team to focus on other areas of retail nutrition and health and wellness strategy, and it’s given the magazine a fresh look and feel. On a smaller scale, Stark’s team still contributes to magazine content when they’re inspired to write articles on topics such as heart health or gluten-free diets. “While writing isn’t something all of the dietitians particularly enjoy, the ones who do are presented with regular opportunities to hone that skill and gain meaningful experience.”
The dietitian team at Meijer Health and Wellness Nutrition attended a writing class to learn how to more effectively translate science-based nutrition information to general consumers. The writing class taught the RDs that marrying short, concise bullet points and attention-grabbing headlines with science-based writing was the key to communicate nutrition messages to customers, says Shari Steinbach, MS, RDN, owner and president of Shari Steinbach and Associates, LLC, of Allendale, Michigan, who managed Meijer’s nutrition program. “You want customers to get excited about a topic,” she says. RDs also need to learn that there’s a business aspect to consumer writing at retail: The topics they choose need to help drive sales and bring consumers to the store.
Tap Into Resources
Not all retail RDs realize that writing for consumers is part of the job. Even if writing isn’t an activity they enjoy, or if they don’t have the time to write because of other responsibilities, there are many valuable resources they can use. Many stores partner with food product companies and have brand sponsors that provide RDs with ready-to-use content and messaging that align with editorial calendar themes throughout the year. According to Grove at Wakefern, “Vendor-supplied RD toolkits are very useful, and they are a great tool for in-store dietitians. Usually they contain a mix of consumer-friendly educational materials, coupons, giveaways, and recipe cards. Some may contain consumer insights and trends. Avocados from Mexico, as an example, provides recipe booklets, avocado slicers, and coupons to support in-store merchandising and demos,” she says. Toolkits can be especially helpful sources for newsletter, magazine, and blog content. They’re also useful to glean tested recipes for print and store demos, demo scripts with talking points, and social media messages, and they provide timely and relevant resources to help in-store RDs better assist customers.
“Those resources are out there,” Steinbach says, but RDs also are on the radar of food groups that provide their information to RDs, often by invitations to events and conferences where toolkits are shared, networking takes place, and new products are revealed. There are plenty of other resources, such as the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance website (retaildietitians.com), which Steinbach describes as an “abundance of information” with links to resources that can enhance RDs’ retail business skills. Steinbach also is working with Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, FAND, to create turnkey wellness activation kits for independent supermarkets that are members of the National Grocers Association (NGA). The Live.Balanced. kits are “all about educational selling and offer content for multiple consumer touchpoints,” Steinbach says, and include ready-to-go blog posts, social media messaging, in-store promotion concepts, demo instructions, merchandising, and intercom messages. Kits are completed for “Meal Solutions” and “Heart Health” concepts, with more themed kits to come in 2020. If dietitians are working with NGA members, these kits are available through the NGA website at www.nationalgrocers.org.
Using Brand Expertise
One of the advantages food commodities and brands have is what Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, corporate dietitian for Avocados from Mexico in Phoenix, calls the “intel” on their product. “Brands spend a lot of time and money to know their stuff, to know what works,” she explains. “Brands can be a really helpful partner” for the in-store RD, Ruhs says. She has the unique perspective of having been a supermarket dietitian and now is a corporate RD working with brands. Not only do brands know the most current nutrition and health science regarding their product but they also have a specific message they want to communicate to consumers, and they do so in an intentional way. If an RD wants to write something about a product or a food, it needs to align with the brand’s message and use language that’s appropriately regulated by government agencies, Ruhs says. “A lot of times RDs have no idea they’re not writing the right things,” Ruhs continues. “You can’t say, for example, that something is a ‘good source’ of omega-3s because there is no Daily Value set for omega-3s. If you want to say a nut is ‘heart healthy,’ you need to check that it qualifies as such because those terms are regulated,” she says. It’s imperative for RDs to be aware of FDA rules and definitions. This, and working with and using brand- and commodity-created content, Ruhs says, will make nutrition reporting better overall.
Retail RDs’ Huge Impact
Retail dietitians also can take this information to their customers to address confusing language and health claims surrounding food. Phrases such as non-GMO, organic, and keto friendly are confusing to consumers, Ruhs says, but RDs are in the ideal position to help them understand and make healthful food choices because consumers look to and trust them. According to Ruhs, the role of in-store RDs is to “bring this expertise to their retailers and be responsible to their customers by educating and supporting the overall health of the customers.” According to the 2019 IFIC Food and Health Survey, consumers with allergies trust their health care providers first and RDs second on allergy issues. “Those credentials as an RD give you credibility and power,” Ruhs says. “RDs need to be proud of that and use it effectively.”
There are no other RDs, except perhaps a few media dietitians, who communicate to a larger audience, Ruhs continues. Consider all the modes of communication, from in-store foot traffic, signage, and kiosks to ads, announcements, and everything online—even the tiniest store has huge outreach, she says. This is an opportunity to work with consumers on what Ruhs calls the “front lines of education,” but it also involves the responsibility to be an influencer to your retail organization and peers. Being a retail RD means you’re a business person as well as a dietitian with the influence to advance and change health and the perception of health from so many different angles. This, Ruhs says, is why brands invest so much in resources to support retail RD programs. They’re “heavily invested because RDs are so powerful, and their potential reach is so huge.”
Writing is definitely the driver of communication for retail dietitians. And now, with so many valuable resources available and ways to publish, from traditional in-store circulars to a script for Facebook Live, retail RDs are taking their messages beyond the supermarket. The potential, power, and credibility retail dietitians have to reach not only their customers but also an ever-expanding audience of consumers, retailers, and peers enables them to provide nutrition education in a consumer-friendly way, helping people to make more healthful food choices every day.
— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in Southern California.