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Dietitians roam aisles, help shoppers make good choices

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Friday, Oct. 26, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Linda Smith held a package of frozen vegetarian burgers, eyeing the picture of the remarkably beef-like patty etched with black grill marks.

Smith, of Shaler, typically doesn't buy vegetarian substitutes. She wondered, amid the bustle of the frozen-food aisle at the Giant Eagle store, if she could sneak the burger past her husband.

“I'm anxious to try this,” said Smith, 68, with a nervous smile as she dropped the package into her cart.

Her decision received a reassuring nod from Amanda Loscar, a registered dietitian Giant Eagle employs to help customers with health conditions make healthier food choices. Smith and her husband have type 2 diabetes and want to lose weight and better control their blood sugar.

“For someone watching their cholesterol, this is a good alternative,” Loscar said of the veggie burgers.

Loscar is among 22 dietitians Giant Eagle hired in the past three years. They work in 36 of its stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland. The O'Hara-based company, with 230 stores, is jumping on a national trend of grocers employing dietitians to assist customers.

“Retailers are really looking it as a way to differentiate and show the customer that they're committed to health and wellness,” said Annette Maggi, a St. Paul, Minn.-area registered dietitian and retail consultant.

Maggi estimates there are about 400 dietitians in U.S. grocery stores — a small but growing number, as store operators increasingly recognize that such services increase customer loyalty, bring in shoppers and can be a strong marketing tool.

Other chains picking up on the trend include Hy-Vee in the Midwest, with 235 stores; Meijer, a Michigan-based chain with about 200 stores; and Kroger, which has more than 2,400 stores across the country.

Brett Merrell, Giant Eagle's senior vice president of health, beauty and wellness, claimed the company isn't employing dietitians to increase sales, though he acknowledged the effort has some marketing advantage.

Dietitian services “differentiate” Giant Eagle from its competitors, but he said Giant Eagle is simply trying to help consumers be healthier.

“It may sound too good to be true, but the primary reasoning we're doing it is because we think it's the right thing to do,” Merrell said.

The company plans to add to the number of dietitians it employs and the number of stores where they meet with customers, but Merrell said he hasn't set any numbers or timeline.

Loscar, who has worked for Giant Eagle about 18 months, spends five days a week doing in-store consultations, teaching nutrition classes and walking the aisles to answer questions. In a typical week she meets with 10 to 20 people, she said.

“I love being in the middle of the action and working directly with customers,” Loscar said.

She provides a bridge from the store's pharmacy to its food products. A patient such as Smith may have prescriptions for medication and advice from her doctor to eat healthier.

But putting healthy eating into practice can be daunting when shoppers face the multitude of products stores stock, said Carole Sedlak, 63, of Glenshaw.

“There's no family doctor who's going to go grocery shopping with you,” Sedlak said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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