When a 135,000-square-foot Wegmans store moved in across the street from one Dean’s Natural Food Market location and Trader Joe’s took up residence half a mile from the other, the Ocean, New Jersey­–based independent retailer may have been tempted to slash prices in hopes of keeping a competitive edge.

Dean Nelson of Dean's Natural Food MarketBut founder Dean Nelson did nothing of the sort. In addition to the full-time nutritionist Nelson had on staff to conduct free consultations in his store aisles, he invited a local raw foods chef to host evening cooking classes and launched a newspaper ad campaign urging people to “Be Mindful,” “Help a Stranger Today” and “Say Something Nice.”

The longtime natural products retailer even rented out the local movie theater to screen and, thus, expose more people to habit-changing health documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives.

“Can I compete on price? Probably not,” Nelson says. Yet, his stores’ sales continue to grow—despite the heavy competition. How? Because they are much more than just food outposts. “We’re not only about selling organic apples,” Nelson says. “Our mission is a lot bigger than that. We’re about creating total mental and physical wellness.”

Dean’s Natural Food Market is not alone. At a time when grocery competition is cutthroat and consumers are looking beyond traditional medical channels for solutions to the nation’s mounting health care crisis, many retailers—from natural products Goliaths such as Whole Foods Market to independents like Dean’s—are working hard to evolve from simply being places to “buy stuff” to become holistic hubs of wellness.

Natural and conventional stores compete on wellness

Not surprisingly, Whole Foods is pushing particularly hard in this direction—and raising the bar for what it means to be a retail-based health resource. In May, the mega-chain began rolling out Wellness Clubs, which offer members in-store nutrition and cooking classes, supper clubs, lifestyle evaluations by registered dietitians, and 10 percent discounts on the store’s healthiest food items—all for a one-time fee of $195 and a monthly membership of $45 (fees vary by location).

Yet, the move to become more than just a store is taking place well beyond the natural channel. Midwest supermarket chain Hy-Vee recently launched a six-week diet program called Fast, Fit, Food. Through the program, staff RDs not only offer advice and classes, but also plan, collect and bag five days’ worth of calorie-appropriate meals for participants each week. Meanwhile, Target stores and Giant Eagle supermarkets recently joined the roughly 1,500 retail outlets nationwide to offer in-store health clinics, where consumers can pop in unannounced to have a nurse practitioner test blood pressure, glucose levels or cholesterol, or peek into a sore ear or throat.

All in all, the Food Marketing Institute reports that 72.4 percent of grocery stores now offer some sort of “health and nutrition” education, while 38 percent provide cooking classes (many of which focus on healthy eating or recipes tailored to specific health conditions such as diabetes).

Not surprisingly, the grocery store is proving to be a particularly effective place for people to learn about and take steps to improve their health and wellness. “Consumers today are advocating for their own health more than ever before, but the abundance of information out there can be overwhelming,” says Cathy Polley, vice president of health and wellness at FMI. “Retailers are discovering that they are well-positioned to help consumers navigate the solutions.”