Natural Foods Merchandiser
Pharmacist opens grocery store to better promote wellness

Pharmacist opens grocery store to better promote wellness

Q&A with Darden Heritage, a pharmacist who decided after 11 years of filling prescriptions that he could better promote wellness by opening a grocery store. He’s now CEO of Huntsville, Ala.-based Star Market and Pharmacy, a four-store conventional retail chain with an emphasis on health education.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: Tell us more about your decision to open a store.

Darden Heritage: I was working at an independent pharmacy across the street from the original Star Market. I saw a lot of synergy between grocery and pharmacy, and wanted to help people address problems on the front end before they became bigger issues down the road. When the owner put the store on the market, I decided to buy it. I admit, I really didn’t know a thing about the grocery business, but I knew the store was popular with the community. I also knew a bit about retail, and I figured I could learn the rest.

NFM: How does your background influence how you run your store?

DH: Looking through a pharmacist’s eyes, I saw how grocery could be improved to better enhance a shopper’s overall experience. One small example of this is our produce department. To communicate the value of supplements, we offer various vitamins next to the fruits and vegetables with the same nutrients. We want customers to make the connection that supplements can be an important part of a balanced diet.

Education is another area we focus on. Diabetes is an epidemic in northern Alabama, so we started a diabetes education class in 2002. Our program explains how diet and lifestyle can help manage the disease. As we added new locations, we put classrooms in the larger stores to further emphasize [and provide an appropriate space for] dynamic education programs.

NFM: Has your store’s focus on healthy diet and exercise affected your pharmacy business?

DH: So far, no. But I think the future of pharmacy is to shift toward more patient education and to help people establish a more proactive relationship with wellness. Down the road, maybe we could convince insurance companies to reimburse us for our education efforts rather than the prescriptions we fill. If we prevent one heart attack, there’s obviously value in what we can communicate through education.

NFM: How do you emphasize education in your grocery department?

DH: We offer shoppers a two-hour tour of the facility, including one hour of classroom education with a registered dietitian and one hour in our store aisles. We have a lot of healthy foods that our customers may not recognize. We teach shoppers how to read labels—what ingredients to avoid, how to understand the nutrition facts panel, what to look for with serving sizes, etc. To a lot of folks, that nutrition panel is a foreign language, but they want to understand it. 

After requesting feedback from customers, we decided not to have special-needs sections in our stores. Our organic and natural foods are integrated throughout, and we use a “Starganics” tag to denote these healthful items—it’s a logo our customers recognize. It wasn’t until 2005 that our stores really started stocking natural foods, but we try to have the right selection for each store size and demographic.

NFM: How would you suggest other retailers promote wellness in their stores?

DH: It’s an evolving thing. You ask 10 people what health and wellness means to them, and you’re probably going to get 10 different answers. I think there’s big potential, if done right, for a retailer to express these ideas better than a doctor or even a pharmacist. Doctors see their patients once, maybe twice a year; pharmacists once or twice a month. Retailers may see the same person every week. Just listen to the consumer. They’ll tell you what they want. It’s pretty simple. By talking to people, that’s how we developed most of our programs. 

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