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The Power to Predict—Precision Wellness Series Part 2

Delivering Solutions Based on Shoppers’ Health Needs

From user-provided preferences to biomarker and DNA data, food and wellness retailers and brands can now anticipate which foods and products shoppers need to maintain health and wellness. In making customized recommendations, retailers and brands can further tap into shoppers’ growing demand for personalization and cement their position as partners in shoppers’ wellness journey.

For this second installment in our series on Precision Wellness, Retail News Insider once again teamed up with the Daymon Thought Leadership team to investigate four of the leading quantified health services currently available to consumers  to see how they could be leveraged in retail.

The first type of service the team tried was biomarker testing. A “biomarker” is generally defined as a substance in a person’s body that can be measured and analyzed to provide an indication of health or disease. Cholesterol levels are a good example of a biomarker that many consumers already know, since doctors often recommend regular cholesterol testing. But now even outside of healthcare, a growing number of services are offering biomarker testing to consumers with the promise of providing targeted nutrition and fitness recommendations based on their personalized results.

Our tester compared two such services: InsideTracker and WellnessFX. Both services test consumers’ blood for common biomarkers such as blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides and vitamin D. The exact tests varied by service—for example, WellnessFX also tested for thyroid function and InsideTracker for iron and calcium levels, but not vice versa.

For InsideTracker, our tester received a comprehensive report outlining the results and recommendations for what foods to eat and what types of exercises to do in order to maintain or improve various biomarker levels, as needed. For WellnessFX, our tester was asked to schedule a phone consultation with a health expert to discuss the results and personalized recommendations.

Our tester found both services to be informative and helpful, providing simple, clear and direct propositions that deliver precise, actionable recommendations. Though the nutrition recommendations both provide are not retailer or brand specific—for example, recommending simply that you eat more non-fat yogurt to improve vitamin D levels, not necessarily a specific brand of yogurt—the opportunity to make a connection between these services and retail is quite promising.

“Providing a service like InsideTracker shows the consumer that you want to be a partner in their wellness journey and in their nutrition journey,” says Rony Sellam, CEO of InsideTracker.  “Say you [as a consumer] go into a grocery store. They know you’re buying certain items based on your loyalty data. [If that retailer is linked with a service like InsideTracker], you might be able to claim coupons for certain items based on your biomarker data, so you’re able to get the products you actually need.”

Carl Jorgensen, Director of Thought Leadership – Wellness for Daymon, agrees with Sellam’s assessment. “The real benefit of a service like this is to be able to deepen the relationship with the customer,” he says. “We talk so much about competing on price being a zero-sum game. Ultimately someone will always come in with a lower price. But developing a wellness partnership with your customer—that’s a clear opportunity to differentiate.”

A similar service retailers and brands could also explore tapping into is that of nutrition- and fitness-focused DNA analysis. While many are familiar with the use of DNA testing to learn about ancestry or certain inherited diseases, there are several services now targeting factors related to diet and exercise.

The two services our tester compared were Vitagene and DNAFit. Both test DNA using saliva samples, which are then analyzed for certain genes known to correspond to things like aerobic fitness levels and sensitivity to fat and sodium. The services then make certain diet and exercise recommendations based on the results. Vitagene also offers supplement recommendations.

Our tester found that many of the results were consistent across both services. For example, both pointed out that the tester was genetically predisposed to have low vitamin B12 (important for blood and brain health) and to be better at power activities (such as sprinting or weight lifting) versus endurance exercises (like running). Both results also suggested limiting carbohydrates for optimal health, though the DNAFit report was more clear in specifically recommending a low-carb diet. Each service also tested for certain things the other did not—such as antioxidant and omega-3 needs in the case of DNAFit and predisposition to emotional eating and weight regain after dieting in the case of Vitagene.

In addition to a report of results, DNAFit also offered a recommended diet plan that included direct links to select grocers’ online shopping services. Those grocers were all chains based in the United Kingdom (where DNAFit is also based), so our tester in the United States was not able to take advantage of them. However, it points to a clear opportunity for grocery retailers and brands in other markets to make the connection with these types of testing services.

There are, however, some caveats that retailers and brands looking to capitalize on these services should heed, says Jorgensen. “Customers like the convenience of having things done for them—like making specific recommendations—but there’s always a suspicion the retailer is getting a cut of the deal. Retailers would be better off recommending categories that would be good for consumers based on their results, but ultimately leave the particular product or brand up to the individual shopper, rather than only recommending say, their own brand items.”

“The ability to build trust is a major element to driving consumer behavior,” add Sellam. “If a retailer makes recommendations by providing a curated experience that doesn’t necessarily benefit their brands directly, the level of trust that will come in from the consumer will become much stronger. It becomes less of a gimmick.”

“It’s a great observation that people will frequent places they trust,” says Dave Harvey, Vice President of Thought Leadership for Daymon. “It’s kind of a longer-term sales play, but one that’s critical as we move from transaction to interaction.”

As for the question of whether these tests and services are just a fad or gimmick, Jorgensen says, “We know that the whole field of wellness is not a fad. How people get information about their own wellness and how to improve it is evolving very, very quickly.” He goes on to compare it to the meal kit business, which started out small just a few years ago and is now a trend that’s dominating the market.

In the future, Jorgensen envisions this type of service will be similar to the blood pressure testing stations that have become nearly ubiquitous in grocery and drug stores throughout the U.S. “The same thing could happen with this kind of testing—you could have someone there in a little booth to administer the test and walk you through the recommendations,” he says. “I think that’s absolutely where this should be heading at retail.”


Quantified Health Application in Retail Supply Chain Management

What if you could predict when an outbreak of disease was about to hit your community in time to start stocking up on the supplies shoppers will soon need? For retailers and manufacturers who weathered the “swine flu” outbreak of 2009—complete with its shortages of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers—it might sound like a dream come true. But researchers at MIT are working on a project that may well turn that dream into a reality.

Through a project called “Underworlds,” a team of MIT researchers have developed a system to collect and analyze biochemical information from sewage water at key collection points throughout a city. The system allows for the study of different species of bacteria, viruses and chemical compounds that live in the human gut and come together in a city’s sewage system—what the researchers call “our collective microbiome.”

“We are hoping this can be used to help monitor public health in real time,” says Shinkyu Park, a postdoctoral researcher working on the project. “It could even be pinpointed to the neighborhood level.” This is in contrast to most public health monitoring systems today, which are often reactionary—only tracing disease after an outbreak has already started to spread.

In addition to spotting signs of illness, the system can be used to look at biomarkers related to stress and obesity, and to monitor pharmaceutical consumption, says Fábio Duarte, MIT Visiting Scholar. “Tying these results in with retail could be an interesting angle to pursue,” he says.

Nicole Peranick, Director of Thought Leadership – Culinary for Daymon, agrees the opportunity to tie this kind of service in with retail operations is intriguing. “In my mind, there are two potential ways this kind of information could inform retailers and suppliers. The first is related to inventory. During large outbreaks of illnesses like the flu, manufacturers, suppliers and retailers aren’t always able to keep up with demand. If there was a way to predict an outbreak was coming, that could give them an opportunity to get ahead of the surge,” she explains.

“The other interesting angle is what kind of preventative measures you might be able to take to avoid a problem,” Peranick continues. “That ties into the whole idea of moving from a reactive health culture to a proactive wellness culture.”

The MIT researchers say they currently have pilot studies underway with the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts and the country of Kuwait, but they would be interested in discussing possible retailer partnerships as well. To learn more, contact Fabio Duarte, Research Lead, at