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Retailers Ready for GAO's 'Secret Shoppers'


In light of recent testimony by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) before the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, Nutrition Business Journal surveyed retailers nationwide to gather some primary evidence of sales behavior in the supplement aisle. GAO’s so-called ‘secret shoppers’ caught clerks on tape making irresponsible and misleading health claims to customers, so we asked retailers to describe their approach to supplement sales.

Cindee Lolik of Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, New York tries to educate customers: “We keep reference materials available in the store, and guide people to consult with their doctors and pharmacists concerning any questions of whether a given product is appropriate for their particular situation." Dean Kallas of Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin balances customer service with regulatory restraints: “It’s important to listen to customers’ needs while being aware that we are not healthcare professionals,” he said. “We cannot ‘recommend’ any product for any ailment.”

The issue is gaining profile among retailers as regulatory scrutiny ramps up across the industry. Of 262 retailers surveyed, 71% believe they have some responsibility in ensuring the safety and efficacy of the supplements they carry. Of 244 respondents, 65% review scientific research in sourcing supplements, while 53% investigate manufacturer compliance with current good manufacturing practices (GMPs).

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) will host a webinar on August 3, 2010, to explore the regulatory requirements facing retailers at the point of sale. Panel experts include Anne Maher of Kleinfeld, Kaplan & Becker, Donna DiDomenico of Vitamin Shoppe, Dick Laurin of Mannatech, and Gregory Fortsch of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

NBJ Bottom Line

Expect more outreach programs to retailers from industry trade groups looking to raise the ethical profile of supplements. It’s a bit of a balancing act for suppliers to advise retailers on how to sell their products, but as Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN notes, “Everybody in the industry has to mind their P’s and Q’s. Everyone has to make sure they’re not the weak link.”

Another trend to watch, according to Jay Jacobowitz of Retail Insights, is more sales clerks with letters after their name, all the way from ND—Nutritional Doctor—to RN—Registered Nurse. “For stores to establish, maintain and project authority and credibility, they need to invest more money in qualified staff,” said Jacobowitz. “The stores that do that operate with a much enhanced sense of confidence. It’s a wise move.”

For the full story, including perspective from independent retailers across the country as well as CRN’s Steve Mister, be sure to read our upcoming issue on the state of U.S. nutrition, available later this month via our website.

Related NBJ links:

2010 Supplement Business Report

Financial Reform Bill Keeps FTC at Bay … For Now

Senators Introduce Dietary Supplement Full Implementation and Enforcement Act of 2010

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