Retail Dietitian Close Up: Allison Kuhn RD, LD, The Kroger Company
Allison Kuhn is a member of Kroger’s Corporate Dietitian team based in Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended culinary school at The Midwest Culinary Institute before graduating from The University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics. Allison is a Certified Food Safety Manager by the National Restaurant Association and is currently working towards her Masters in Nutrition Science at The University of Cincinnati. In 2014, Allison was selected by the Produce for Better Health Foundation as “Supermarket Dietitian of the Year” and regularly contributes to their “Insider’s Viewpoint” columns. As a dietitian for Kroger, Allison provides food and nutrition expertise for Kroger’s customer communications and also works cross-departmentally to support health-related projects in digital marketing, pharmacy, employee wellness, and corporate brands.
Tell us a little bit about your store.
At the present time, Kroger does not have any RDs who are solely store-based. I work for our corporate dietitian team, and we have dietitians in some of our divisions as well. At last count, Kroger has over 2,400 stores across 15+ divisions.
What's the story behind your experience in retail and your position with your store?
Right after becoming an RD, I decided to pursue my MS in nutrition full-time. While I was working on that degree, I met Molly McBride, whom had been a corporate RD with Kroger for several years. We became fast friends, and I learned a lot about the retail nutrition career path from her experiences. The timing worked out perfectly, since Kroger decided to add another dietitian to the team at the end of that year, and I was very lucky to be offered the position. I have a background in culinary arts, so the food and culinary tie-in to this work is ideal for me.
Can you tell us a little more specifically about your role in Consumer Response?
We are currently nestled in Kroger’s corporate contact center, known as “Customer Connect.” In this role, our team acts as the final escalation point for any question a customer may have about our private label products, healthy shopping, or cooking/baking. We have a team of product ambassadors and specialists whom we train and trust to provide our customers with accurate answers to our commonly received product questions. We provide regulatory and industry alignment for this dynamic team while focusing on customer cases that are based around a health condition and/or require a technical or externally researched response. In addition to our role within Customer Connect, we work cross-departmentally with multiple internal teams including digital marketing, pharmacy, corporate brands, employee wellness, and our loyalty data partner company, Dunnhumby. We also maintain a presence within the community in partnership with health networks and non-profit groups as well as our Cincinnati, Ohio division of stores.
How did this role come to be?
While Kroger has employed dietitians for several years, the role has changed substantially in the past several years. We’re thrilled to be increasingly integrated into various departments and initiatives, all of which ultimately loop back to connecting with our customers. The creation of my specific role is evidence of this expansion and the success of my team members in the years preceding my hiring.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the retail industry?
For me personally, the challenge is often finding that “right” person to contact within a company as large as Kroger. Learning how to communicate and network within a massive organization is something that really took some getting used to! But I’ve encountered some great allies and champions of dietitians along the way, both internal and external.
Share one thing that you wish you would have known before starting your career as a retail dietitian?
There is an extremely steep learning curve for dietitians coming to retail from clinical, especially for a position like ours. We really have to be the experts when it comes to highly specific food and nutrition questions. I am amazed every day at how detail-oriented our customers are and how much passion they have for knowing everything they can about their food. I think it’s important for all new retail dietitians to ask a lot of questions, and realize that the knowledge you will need for these types of positions is not necessarily covered in general dietetics curriculum, but that which you will gain overtime with experience.
Has there been anything specific that has held you back? If yes, tell us about this and how you dealt with it.
I think our team has challenges that all retail dietitians can identify with, specifically surrounding measuring ROI and productivity. There is always discussion about whether dietitians are (or should be) contributing directly to sales, or if our services are more aimed at increasing loyalty, which is much harder to measure. Our team is starting to really drill down and get that data to help show our value to the organization. We are looking at numbers surrounding our case work, as well as how we contribute to cost savings for the company, and we’re collecting sales data around a pilot meal merchandising program we will be beginning this Spring.
In a similar vein, has there been anything specific that has helped you move forward? If yes, tell us about this.
Personally, I try to maintain a “can-do” attitude. Meaning, I tend to accept most any project (within reason) that comes across my desk. Even in the relatively short time that I’ve been with Kroger, I have already found that requests which at first may seem small or insignificant can turn into larger and very impactful initiatives. This might not be the best line of advice for every situation, but I generally have never regretted my involvement in any nutrition-related project.
What have you done to equip yourself with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the retail industry?
Once I realized how much learning I needed to do, I started looking for sound sources of information to get me up to speed on the current consumer trends and labeling regulations. RDBA webinars and publications are fantastic resources for new retail dietitians, as is the wealth of information offered from IFIC, FDA/USDA resources, toolkits from industry partners, non-profit partners like PBH, and other experienced retail dietitians. The educational experiences offered to dietitians are absolutely indispensable, and I encourage new dietitians to travel to one of these educational conferences within a few months of accepting their position, if possible.
Tell us about one of your programs or initiatives that you are most proud of and why.
One of our biggest projects in 2014 was updating the recipes and content on our printed prescription bags. I was asked to edit some of the original recipes, and saw an opportunity to really improve the messaging we were putting out to our pharmacy customers. The bags now feature healthy PBH recipes, along with expanded condition-specific tips or shorter tips, all authored by us. This is tailored messaging, so the customer is actually getting content written for their specific disease state. We are looking at data around this program as well, to see if we have any increases in compliance as part of this program. Given the scope of our pharmacy program, this allows our small team to reach millions of customers each month with this messaging.