By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, Contributing Editor
When I started working in the grocery industry in 1990 there were only a few dietitians employed in supermarkets. I was pretty much at a loss but am very thankful for a handful of individuals who shared their knowledge, helped me navigate the retail waters, and motivated me in my new role. Jane Andrews from Wegmans was one of those dietitians. Over the years she has been a mentor, sounding board and teacher, and I am grateful for her leadership in the industry and for always finding time to help me, other dietitians, students and a countless number of Wegmans customers. Jane is retiring this month and beginning an exciting new chapter in her life so we thought it only fitting to ask her about how her role at Wegmans has changed over the years and to share some insights about her success.
My first "role" with Wegmans was as a partner working together on a community-wide NIH cholesterol screening grant. I was on the staff at the University of Rochester and wrote info pieces for participants including a brochure, a coupon booklet with tips and educational POS signage for various categories. This was a terrific opportunity to show Wegmans execs that I understood how to write for consumers. They also supported my efforts to create a 6-session continuing education programs for RDs on cholesterol lowering. When a half time position became available, I applied. Wegmans thought I was over-qualified and wouldn't like dealing with complaining customers. I responded with "You think that our patients don't complain?" I had to further prove myself. They tossed me a few contract jobs involving presentations to Wegmans staff and writing a couple of brochures. Persistence pays! In August of 1988 I began working half time in the Consumer Affairs department. I answered consumer questions, worked on brochures and partnered with community groups on community education programs.
In 1988, few of the merchandising directors thought that health could impact sales. They said that shoppers may talk a good line, but they would not change their shopping habits. That notably included the produce department. When we began our produce education program in 1991 called "Strive for 5" my biggest challenge was convincing the produce staff that this effort was worth their time. But the resulting program was amazingly successful showing dramatic increases in overall produce sales. All the other merchandisers took note. Today everyone here understands that customers are looking for easy ways to eat healthfully.
That would be "Strive for 5". Wegmans started out as the Rochester Vegetable Company and fresh produce has always been a differentiator. But until "Strive" our employees would never have engaged shoppers regarding the why and how of eating more produce. In reality we had to change the culture of the produce department. We did this with the help of a terrific cross-functional team including corporate folks and one produce manager from each division. It was the produce managers who brought a fresh perspective. They provided ideas, inspiration and reality-based feedback on how our people would respond to various strategies. Their buy-in and creativity made all the difference in the success of the roll-out.
It was unbelievably helpful. I'm so glad that Wegmans sent me to various FMI Consumer Affairs meetings. That grounded and connected me with other individuals that I could reach out to, for example, when their store was mentioned regarding a promotion that sounded too good to be true. In addition, the early years of the Supermarket RD Subgroup of the Food & Culinary Professionals practice group allowed us to create webinars designed for and by our members. We saw how hungry retail dietitians were for help. I learned that it was very important to give back and would always chat with an RD colleague who was either working or wanting to work for another supermarket and needed advice. Now I feel like there are so many different opportunities for education and networking, most especially through RDBA.
We sunk a lot of time and energy in creating an in-store diabetes education program in the Syracuse division. After three years with spectacular results we pulled out. Insurance companies would not pay for this intense version of diabetes education. It felt like a huge personal failure for myself and the pharmacists that worked on it. I came away feeling that we needed to go back to broad-based prevention rather than diet therapy. I wish we had learned the lesson without so much investment of time, talent and treasure. But the result was a program called "Eat Well. Live Well." which was very successful. Failure breeds success!
Taking on new terrain is a great way to apply all the background knowledge that you already have. Just like any other dietetics practice, much of working in supermarkets involves both art and science. You'll find that 'perception is reality' and you'll often be right on the science but wrong on the perception piece. Because you'll almost always be working through others, you'll need to develop your role as an influencer and multiplier. Watch for opportunities to develop allies, that is leaders who want to promote some of the same foods that you want shoppers to eat more of. They'd make great future partners.
Retail RDNs will need to get on the digital bus and think like the folks who've grown up with these tools. But then most people coming into the profession now have not known another world. They have a terrific advantage over people like me.
The competition will be much more digitally enabled including home delivery. We'll need to be utilizing digital platforms to help customers find foods for better health.
My youngest son is getting married on Veteran's Day weekend in Williamsburg. His fiancé is wonderful. Both of them are very social and well-connected in DC. The wedding should be a blast!
I speak for all RDBA members by saying thank you Jane!! We all wish you health, happiness and great adventures in your retirement!