By: Stephanie Schultz, RD Ambassador to the RDBA
Please describe your role at Hannaford Supermarkets. How has it changed since the pandemic?
A day in the life as a Hannaford Dietitian includes a store walk, or at minimum, a visit to customer service to check in, greet store associates, department managers, pharmacy and store managers or assistant managers to let them know the dietitian is in the house.
I set up my “movable classroom” and review the weekly theme from our healthy living team email, copy the educational handouts, prepare myself to share recipes and gather ingredients to prepare a dry or live demo with food sampling for 3-4 hours.
I may have a walk-in customer, for example, sent in by their doctor to ask for help finding low sodium foods, or a scheduled customer coming in with a request to find good carbs to help lower his/her blood sugar. Another may come in following a recommendation from a dietitian at the hospital to take a tour to find gluten free snacks for school after her son’s diagnosis with Celiac disease.
I may have a community group coming in for a class, or instead, I may head to a local library for a parent class while the kids are in story time or to a food shelter offering teens a cooking class. I also go to local businesses to present lunch and learn topics, such as 30-minute Favorite Dietitian Meals.
I may host a huddle on the store floor. The weekly theme may be of benefit to our associates, so joining the huddle to provide five minutes of education allows me to reach beyond the demo table. Huddle topics include things like mental and emotional well-being, so I may share insights on how your gut health can affect your mental health.
Another topic has been: “Help, I’m having a snack attack on my break, and I only have $3 on my debit card to spend.” Then we provide prizes for a Q&A session and store snacks that I coordinate with an associate representative.
During the pandemic, I hosted masked tours with customers, in person classes moved to smaller groups and many classes turned virtual. That was a great change! It provided a new opportunity for in-store dietitians to take the classroom to the community.
Our healthy living team created an Eventbrite invitation platform with 30-minute live classes with pre-written scripts and slide decks for a variety of topics. I invite you to view and sign up for these at https://www.eventbrite.com/o/hannaford-dietitians-30746473208
I teach about five classes each month with as many as 100 people signing up, depending on the topic. Teaching on Zoom has its challenges, and that was a learning curve at first. I started with home Wi-Fi and returned to the store offering the class in a café setting so shoppers walking by could listen in.
What’s the story behind your experience in retail and how you came to work at your retailer?
When I started 20 years ago, as an outpatient clinical dietitian at a community hospital, I received a phone call from my supervisor asking me if I wanted to be a supermarket dietitian. Since I already hosted tours for our cardiac rehab patients it seemed natural to me, even though I didn’t have retail experience.
I was one of four dietitians to pilot the nutrition assistant position in Maine and New Hampshire for Hannaford as the stores had added an in-store natural food section with organic foods, dietary supplements and in-store pharmacies.
In the beginning, I learned on the job watching assistant and department managers and vendors. I began sourcing trend topics from magazines such as Today’s Dietitian, set up endcaps with nutrition info, built recipe boards for customers and advertised classes in the store.
I asked for sales metrics of select products that I wanted to highlight on an endcap or in recipes. Back then, when flaxseed was just becoming popular, it was one of my starter food product trends. I recall the excitement of the grocery manager seeing the sales of items that I promoted show an uptick in sales for three months after I removed that endcap.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the retail industry?
For me, that challenge has changed over the course of my 20-year retail dietitian career.
In the beginning, I would have said lack of awareness and understanding from the retailer’s perspective of what a dietitian can do. Today, that’s in the rear window as store managers (that move to other stores) will often ask our healthy living team for a dietitian in their new store location.
I’m not sure if many retailers know that dietitians can be a retail asset; with the proper marketing, dietitians can increase sales and influence consumer spending. Again, my retailer did and still does understand this.
Today, as a retail dietitian and consumer myself, I believe there are greater opportunities than challenges. Food is interesting. Healthy eating is popular. Embrace the trends and variety of eating styles. Retail dietitians are equipped to find meal solutions and make it easier for customers in their daily struggle balancing health, finances, time-management and fitting in a grocery store shopping experience.
What is one thing you wish you had known before starting your career in retail?
Business, marketing and PR crash courses or an internship in those areas would have been helpful.
Has there been anything specific that helped you move forward in your role?
Passion and trust. I have a passion to help people to make change, and they trust that I would be there for them when they were ready and able to make a change. The grocery aisle can be a powerful place. Customers have said things like, “How did you know that I needed help with this?” and, “You taught me something that I really needed to know. I can do that!”
Is there a program or initiative that you are most proud of?
I could say that being the OG, 20 years as a supermarket dietitian, is something to be proud of! I was also recently nominated by my peers as Hannaford Dietitian of 2023.
In addition, one project that comes to mind is one I did during Heart Month in February in my early Hannaford dietitian years. I put “heart picks” signs on specific food products that were heart-healthy. I remember seeing holes on the shelves next to items.
Many years later our Healthy Living team came up with Dietitian Picks. The dietitian selects food products from store shelves and fresh departments that are defined depending on their nutrition criteria and benefit. For instance: plant power, boost your mood, bone builder, fiber filled, treat yourself, etc. On a quarterly basis, the dietitians place the signs next to the items. The team tracks sale metrics. We may select 75 products in a quarter to see how they sell.
Marilyn G. Mills, MS, RD, LD, CDE, obtained her nutrition degree from Marymount College of New York and her master’s in human nutrition from the University of New Haven. Marilyn has over 25 years of clinical and community experience as a NH Licensed Dietitian providing nutrition therapy and diet counseling with specialties in diabetes management, child and adult obesity treatment, food allergies and digestive issues. She is a clinical dietitian and certified diabetes educator currently contracted through Elliot Health System as a supermarket dietitian in Hannaford in Manchester, Goffstown, Hooksett New Hampshire.